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.