Sheila Gilmore, Labour MP for Edinburgh East during the last parliament, says the reality of parliamentary arithmetic means simplistic criticisms of Labour’s voting record are unfair and inaccurate.
“Labour abstained on the Welfare Bill and helped usher in austerity” is one of the statements constantly repeated by Corbyn supporters. Indeed Jeremy Corbyn himself in his rally speeches last week reminded his audience of the Second Reading abstention in July 2015, to cheers. But he could equally well have said “It was bad politics, that abstention, but you know what the reality is? If every Labour MP had voted against at Second Reading it would still have passed that stage. And what’s more the party voted against the Third Reading and we still lost.”
The same was true of the previous Welfare Reform Bill. The Welfare Reform Bill of 2011 (subsequently the 2012 Act) was a huge omnibus of a bill. We argued it forensically and passionately through committee, with our amendments voted down. We voted against the Bill at third reading and supported the House of Lords amendments which would have mitigated some of the Bill’s worst aspects. By this stage there were a few Lib Dems who had listened to the debates and the very many expert submissions and voted with us – but not nearly enough. But even had we voted against at Second Reading, at that time we wouldn’t have affected the outcome and not one Lib Dem voted against at that stage.
One of the other arguments coming forward from Corbyn supporters has been to point to the current Tory government being forced to back down on its tax credit and PIP proposals. What other Labour leader, they ask, could have done that? The implication being that Labour under Ed Miliband wasn’t even trying.
These were very welcome back-downs by the government, particularly welcome for those who would have been badly affected. But this happened partly as a result of the hard work of the Labour team in the House of Lords who managed to bring on board cross bench peers and some from other parties. Following that a few Tory MPs made it clear they would break ranks. Certainly Labour under Corbyn argued strongly in the Commons, but no more vigorously than the impassioned debates held on social security issues in the 2010-2015 period.
What has changed is the parliamentary arithmetic. The post 2015 Tory government has a majority of 12. The Coalition could muster some 60. It is much easier to defeat a government with a slender majority.
Contrary to some of the initial predictions , the Coalition proved remarkably united. Remember the tuition fees issue in the early days of the Coalition. Labour opposed with energy, there was a big campaign in the country with big demonstrations. We lost every vote because the majority of the Liberal Democrats stuck with Clegg despite all the external pressure.
It takes too long to explain all this, certainly much longer than to tweet “You voted for austerity” at MPs. And when you do try to set out this reality, it comes out sounding pedantic.
The truth is that in a parliamentary democracy you can make all the impassioned speeches you like, hold meetings and marches, but without winning a parliamentary majority you can’t win votes. Those losing £30 per week ESA, or losing DLA as the switch to PIP continues, or facing the working tax credit cuts in the future, need us to win that majority.