First published: February 1998
Tony Blair’s honeymoon came to an abrupt public end with the vote of 47 Labour MPs and the abstention of many others against the government’s proposals to abolish single parent benefits. The government’s attacks on the living standards of the poorest women and children in the country not only provoked a parliamentary rebellion unprecedented so early in the parliament, but also a public outcry which signalled a clear turning point in the Labour government’s popularity. The impact of the campaign to save lone parent benefits and the unexpectedly big revolt of MPs means that, while Blair plans to proceed with attacks on disability benefits, pensions and other pillars of the welfare state, he will face still more determined opposition.
The unfolding of events in the weeks leading up to the vote on 10 December demonstrated two key points: firstly, the importance of the Labour left taking a clear campaigning stand against such anti-woman, anti-working class and deeply unpopular policies; secondly, the crucial role played by a campaign led by women – the Save Lone Parent Benefit campaign – and orientated to linking up with parliamentary and labour movement opposition. This was particularly important in the context of the failure of the majority of Labour’s new women MPs to represent women’s interests – and the divisive use to which this was put by the government.
Among Labour MPs opposition to the government’s proposals was registered by a de facto alliance spanning the Campaign Group and the centre left through to individuals from the traditional, pro-welfare right. The 47 Labour MPs who voted against ranged from backbench MPs like Audrey Wise, Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott, together with Roger Berry, Ann Clwyd and Gwyneth Dunwoody, through to five holders of office, who consequently either resigned or were sacked from their posts (Alice Mahon, Malcolm Chisholm, Gordon Prentice, Michael Clapham and Neil Gerrard).
A further 57 Labour MPs did not vote, many in a conspicuous display – remaining in their seats while the vote was taken.
The political range of Labour MPs represented by the vote echoed, but on a much wider basis, that seen around Labour’s National Executive elections earlier in the year. The Economist tactically advised Blair against provoking an ‘unwise’ rebellion, because it understood that the sight of ‘a Labour government scuttling around the television studios justifying cuts in social security for lone parent families sickens members across a wide range of views’ and provided ‘an issue which aligned [the left MPs] with the wider centre and right of the Labour Party against the Blairite modernisers’ (13 December). An Observer headline summed up the potential when it asked: ‘A new dawn for a New Left?’ (14 December).
A Guardian poll published the day before the vote showed public opinion against the government by a majority of three to one. This climate, together with the number of MPs involved, meant that despite well-publicised threats, the Labour leadership was unable to discipline any of the MPs who voted in defence of lone parents. This is in spite of new parliamentary Labour Party standing orders which made it a disciplinary offence for MPs to vote against the government.
The day after the vote the Guardian editorialised: ‘There’s little point rehearsing the arguments against the measure. Labour will have heard them all day from the single mothers demonstrating outside Parliament, and the thousands of others who telephoned their anger into radio call-in shows and constituency offices… The Guardian congratulates Malcolm Chisolm, Gordon Prentice and the others who put principle before promotion’ (12 December). If reports that the proposals may be defeated in the Lords turned out to be true (Financial Times 13 January), it would mean an even greater turn in government fortunes.
The government’s arguments were demolished by the Save Lone Parent Benefit campaign. This was underlined repeatedly in the intense media coverage through the weeks of the Bill’s rushed parliamentary progress. The impact of this campaigning was reflected in the tone of the Commons debate in which a mere handful of MPs spoke to support Harriet Harman and had their arguments pulled to shreds.
Opposition to the government’s proposals began to emerge immediately after Gordon Brown’s July budget, which was followed by a statement from Harriet Harman at the Department of Social Security explaining the intention to end one parent supplements to Income Support and Child Benefit by April and June 1998 respectively.
At the carefully stage-managed Labour women’s training conference in mid-July, defence of the proposals by Baroness Hollis and new Labour MP and ex-NUS president Lorna Fitzsimons as not pleasant but ‘necessary’ contrasted with a well attended and heated Labour Women’s Action Committee (LWAC) meeting addressed by Audrey Wise MP, which effectively launched the campaign within the Labour Party to save lone parent benefits.
With news on the proposals getting through to Labour Party members over the summer, LWAC, together with Labour women MPs, took the initiative to launch the Save Lone Parent Benefit umbrella campaign. Within the Labour Party, amendments were circulated – resulting in the Labour conference in October being presented with a composite motion in defence of lone parent benefits. Although timetabled for discussion, on the day of the debate this composite was mysteriously dropped from the agenda, in an effort to prevent a vote and even the mere broadcasting of the issue to delegates at the conference and to the wider media.
Further angered by this suppression of discussion, Labour women activists, MPs and single parent groups organised a public meeting at the House of Commons to brief MPs and lobby them to oppose the proposals.
This meeting on 11 November succeeded in coalescing representatives of major lone parent and child poverty organisations – despite some reluctance on the part of one of the major charities because of political sympathies with Blair by leading individuals – national trade unions, women’s officers, local government anti-poverty organisations and MPs. Until then there had been very little national media interest. From this point on, however, the issue was daily news.
In addition to Maria Fyfe, Audrey Wise and Lynne Jones who spoke from the platform, 25 other MPs attended, an exceptional turn-out of MPs for such an event. The tone was set by speakers such as Sue Cohen of the Single Parent Action Network who condemned the government for ‘riding on a climate of bigotry towards lone parents created by the last Tory government’, and Marion Davis of One Plus, the major one parent organisation in Scotland, who pointed out that ‘the present government is looking towards the US’ and asked ‘Do we really want to live in a society where lone mothers have to queue up at soup kitchens as they do in the US?’ GMB representative Donna Covey and TGWU national officer Diana Holland also spoke. Up to this point the national trade union leaderships – although privately opposed – had limited their public statements on the proposals. Donna Covey criticised those of the 101 Labour women MPs who might be supporting the proposal to cut benefits, saying that they had ‘no right to get elected on the back of women-only shortlists and then vote for anti-women policies’.
This united front of public opposition to government plans gave a further substantial impetus to opposition in parliament. The day after the meeting the committee dealing with the changes to Income Support entitlements met. It was disrupted by women accusing the Labour members of ‘hypocrisy’.
Of the 10 Labour members on the committee, 6 were women: Maria Eagle, Caroline Flint, Kate Hoey, Siobhan McDonagh, Shona McIsaac and Gillian Merron. Their failure to mount the slightest objection was scathingly attacked in an article by Nick Cohen in the Observer newspaper: ‘I don’t think anyone who believed that a Labour government would make life slightly better for the poor could read the record of the meeting without embarrassed disgust… It was left to Damian Green – a Tory man, of all things – to ask them if it was for this that they spent “years in the political wilderness as Labour activists, hoping to become members of Parliament.” No one answered’ (Observer 23 November).
By the time the committee dealing with the cuts in Child Benefit was due to meet, on 19 November, the growing Labour opposition was the subject of increasing media scrutiny. There were 13 Labour members on this committee, including 3 women: Kali Mountford, Sandra Osborne and Gisela Stuart, all newly elected on 1 May. Other Labour MPs on the committee included Chris Pond, whose previous job was as director of the Low Pay Unit. They backed the cuts. This sharply contrasted with the situation in the House of Commons as a whole, where the call to save lone parent benefit was led by left wing Labour MPs.
The following day’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party gave vent to Labour MPs’ anger. Addressing the meeting, social security secretary Harriet Harman faced overwhelming criticism and accusations of hypocrisy for implementing proposals she had personally attacked when they were suggested by the last Tory government in November 1996. Statements by those supporting the government’s view gave a flavour of the thinking now tolerated on the Blairite right. Stephen Pound, MP for Ealing Acton reportedly chided women protesting at the sums they would lose, saying ‘It’s no more than the price of a couple of packets of cigarettes.’
Following the PLP outbursts, Labour opposition was front page news. The next day’s Guardian headline blasted ‘Rebels close in on Harman’. The Times reported ‘MPs give Harman “roasting” over cuts’. The story loomed large on all television and radio news.
With savings from the combined cutting of Income Support and Child Benefits for lone parents estimated as £60 million in the first year rising to £195 million in the third year, peanuts when set against a total social security budget of £100 billion – and substantially less than the £800 million being squandered on the Millennium dome – and news emerging that the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement for the current year was likely to undershoot by £3 billion, the government found itself under mounting pressure to withdraw the proposals. Even the Financial Times pointed out that the decision, announced in the pre-budget statement in late November, to cut corporation tax would, from 2003–04 ‘cost the exchequer £2bn a year, far more than the government will save from its controversial decision to implement Tory cuts in lone parent benefit’ (26 November).
One manifestation of the government’s weakening position was the leap in the total number of names on the Audrey Wise EDM. Of 97 MPs who had signed it by early December, 51 were Labour. Of these only 9 were Labour women: Diane Abbott, Anne Cryer, Maria Fyfe, Lynne Jones, Gwyneth Dunwoody, Llin Golding, Julie Morgan, Ann Clwyd and Audrey Wise. A few others who had initially signed withdrew under pressure from government whips, including Rosemary McKenna, Jim Cunningham, Nick Palmer, Jim Fitzpatrick, Syd Ropson, Phil Sawford, and Eric Clarke.
Since Gordon Brown’s budget statement made no concessions at all to the lone parent lobby, pressure on the government grew in the period up to the bill’s decisive Third Reading in the House of Commons. Despite massive pressure by the government to force MPs into line, 120 MPs signed a ‘private’ letter to Gordon Brown calling for delay in the proposals at least until an assessment of the government’s ‘Welfare to Work’ policies was possible.
In the final days before the Third Reading – of which a mere 10 days’ notice had been given by the government – campaigners’ efforts to mobilise met an astonishing response from charitable institutions, political and public figures and by lone parents themselves. Far from ‘the issue…“not registering” as a matter of concern outside the parliamentary party’ as Blair told Tony Benn (Observer 7 December), the public response was overwhelming. A letter published in the Guardian on 9 December was signed by representatives of 20 children’s charities alongside even Glenys Kinnock and Helena Kennedy. One published in the Scottish press the following day had the support of the Scottish Trade Union Congress, 10 Scottish based children’s charities and all wings of the Christian churches. At the same time major national trade union leaderships, however, declined to sign a similar letter to the London based press.
On the day of the vote the Save Lone Parent Benefit campaign’s press conference saw a platform uniting some of the traditional labourist right with others from the centre as well as left of the party. MPs on the platform included Audrey Wise, Alice Mahon, Maria Fyfe, Ann Clwyd, Julie Morgan and Gwyneth Dunwoody. At the subsequent photocall lone parents and their children were also joined by Malcolm Chisholm, who had just resigned his ministerial position in a move which presaged the scale of the impending revolt.
The subsequent Third Reading debate was remarkable for the ferocity of backbench opposition and the scarcity of MPs willing to come to the government’s defence. Speaker after speaker pointed out that the budgetary savings from the cuts were insignificant.
MPs repeatedly interrupted Harman and the chamber fell silent as Alice Mahon explained why she could not support income cuts to the poorest children in Britain. Rubbing salt in the wound to lone parents, as MPs were making their points the government was entertaining pop stars at Downing Street in one of the parties on which, since taking office, it has spent more than will be saved next year by the Child Benefit element of the cuts.
The government’s assault on lone parent benefits for new claimants is part of a raft of measures intended to add to the creation of a two-tier labour market within which women disproportionately feature among the low paid, insecure, part-time, ‘flexible’ sector.
The government wants to create a US-style labour market, where because virtually no welfare safety net exists, unemployment bears more directly on the working class, forcing people like lone parents to work for extremely low wages and without employment protection. This ‘Americanisation’ of the labour market is now being extended to lone mothers – together with disabled people, Harman’s next target, and young workers, who are to be exempted from any national minimum wage and subjected to their own ‘New Deal’.
In this sense the attacks on lone parents are part of a coherent strategy codified by bodies like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as ‘making people less reluctant to work’. These policies seek to force unemployed people and those currently accepted as outside the labour market – disabled people and lone mothers for example – into employment by making the alternative intolerable.
Lone mothers are to be denied welfare benefits and obliged to work for low rates of pay and radically insecure conditions. This is what Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt mean when they talk of lone parents or disabled people having the ‘right to be included in the welfare to work strategy’ and ending the ‘culture of welfare dependency’.
The campaign to save lone parent benefit registered, as even those generally supportive of the government’s strategy have acknowledged, a significant breakthrough for the Labour left because it successfully identified with and led public, extra-parliamentary political opposition. The best possible political use of opposition to cutting lone parent benefits was made because it was left neither to enemies of the working class to cynically exploit – specifically the Liberal Democrats – nor simply to those most affected or more minority forces in the labour movement. Over the coming months the challenge for the left is to use this strengthened position to present an overall economic alternative to the government’s anti-welfare policy and to link up with those sections of society mobilised to defend each separate plank of the welfare state.