Labour hearts that will beat louder still

Paul Routledge on a rebellion that put social conscience back on the party's agenda
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The Independent Online
New Labour is not all new. It never was. Yet the scale of the rebellion against the Government's plans to cut child benefit to single mothers last week sent shock waves through the ranks of the Government's business managers. They had counted on 20 dissidents voting against the measure on lone parent benefits at most, with perhaps twice that number abstaining. In the event, 61 MPs on the Government side could not bring themselves to support Harriet Harman, the Social Security Secretary. Almost as many again were unaccountably "missing" from the Commons.

Some MPs were said to be in tears at the Government's proposals to target some of the poorest members of society. But there are likely to be even more tears in coming weeks. According to a leaked memo from one of Harriet Harman's most senior advisers, the Government is considering disability and sickness benefits, as predicted by several newspapers.

The memo from Ursula Brennan, Ms Harman's chief policy adviser, warned that savings necessary to pay for health and education "will have to come from benefits paid to sick and disabled people".

To those who still sing "The Red Flag" with ardour, this will indeed be a red rag to a bull. But just who is prepared to rebel and defy the government whips on reforms to the welfare state?

If the whips had read "Blair's Bastards" in this newspaper last year, they would have had some idea in advance of the lone mothers rebellion how great the scale of the revolt would be. Academics Philip Norton and Philip Cowley of Hull University's Department of Politics explained that while some Labour MPs were clearly ministers-in-waiting, there were also rebels-in-waiting. In the event, 47 Labour MPs voted against the measure, with the rest abstaining - clearly greater than the predicted 20. They identified 38 potential dissidents. Apart from those who have left the House or died, two-thirds of them reverted to type. Cowley observes: "Last Wednesday, they simply stopped waiting."

The truth is that the vote of 10 December marks a watershed, not just the end of the honeymoon. Last January, when asked by Polly Toynbee of the Independent if she would introduce Tory legislation to cut single parents' benefits, Harriet Harman said: "No, of course not." Her fumbling attempt to portray her party's volte-face as a justifiable measure honestly aimed at getting single mothers into work cut no ice with backbenchers. Her Cabinet colleagues did not bother to show solidarity on the front benches, though they trooped through the division lobbies for her, including the Prime Minister, who thus registered his third vote in the Commons since the general election.

The spin-doctors sent out the message to potential rebels: "There's no safety in numbers." Oh no? The revolt was so much worse than the whips' internal forecasts that threats of suspension from the parliamentary party had to be quietly put to one side. Instead, all but three of the 47 MPs who voted against the Government were shown a yellow card: a warning not to do it again. Three who were perceived as ring-leaders - John Marek, Brian Sedgemore and Bob Wareing - are to be investigated by the party's National Executive for possible further punishment.

It is hard to see what the NEC, which these days is essentially the Cabinet and its placepersons, can do - unless Tony Blair is determined to begin the process of deselecting three long-standing MPs who voted for what was Labour policy as recently as last January. This does not look like the firm ground the Government needs to make deselection stick. And such a draconian solution would certainly provoke charges of infringement of parliamentary privilege.

The identity of the 47 rebels is important. Only eight were women, and of these only one was a new entrant to the Commons, Ann Cryer, widow of the left-wing Bob Cryer. Men are more likely to rebel against Blair than women, including new MPs, of whom 14 joined the dissident camp.

Essentially, the coalition of opposition is made up of the old Campaign Left, plus traditionalist newcomers and some Westminster veterans who cannot now expect to be given ministerial office, such as Ann Clwyd and Roger Berry. They have more allies in the centre-right of the parliamentary party, and they are very likely to rebel again.

"If Blair and Gordon Brown try to cut disability benefit, they will find many more prepared to say 'No'," predicted a senior back-bencher who reluctantly supported Ms Harman last week. "There are some things we will not put up with."

Disability bids fair to be the next flashpoint in the row over reform of the welfare state. The Government's spending plans show the cost of attendance allowances rising from pounds 1.7bn in 1991-92 to pounds 2.4bn in the current year and pounds 3.1bn in 1999-2000. Over the same period, invalid care allowance rises from pounds 285m to pounds 1bn a year. Severe disability allowance practically doubles to pounds 1.1bn. Disability living allowance more than triples to pounds 6bn. These are big figures, even in a social security budget that is planned to rise overall from almost pounds 91bn this year to pounds 100bn in 1999-2000, and the Treasury hawks have their eyes on them.

Ursula Brennan's memo to Ms Harman explained: "The Government has made clear its aim to release resources from social security to spend more on health and education and it is likely that a high proportion of the necessary savings will have to come from benefits paid to sick and disabled people, including compensatory benefits for industrial injury."

Reflecting an awareness of the potential for a public relations disaster such as that surrounding the lone parent payment, the report warns: "The Secretary of State is clear that it will not be possible to make substantial savings from the sickness and disability benefits unless Government as a whole has a coherent and convincing story to tell about its strategy towards sick and disabled people."

Downing Street takes a bullish line. Blair's official spokesman insists the Prime Minister "is serious about welfare reform". Rocketing welfare bills are not the answer. He will deliver big changes. Woe betide anybody who gets in the way. Blair believes welfare reform is like the battle over Clause Four: a political virility test. "There will be more opposition to what we are going to do," boasts his spokesman. "Obviously we will want to take people with us, MPs, explaining why reform is necessary. In the end, the Government will have to implement its manifesto. We have made a start on welfare reform. There is more to come."

But the evidence of last Wednesday suggests he will have to do more to convince his MPs, and not just the ambitious "Blair Babes" who are ultra-loyal, and want jobs in the Government.

Despite Labour's enormous majority, the Conservatives are not out of the picture. William Hague is playing a cunning game, offering a virtual Tory-Labour pact on welfare reform. Wednesday's vote established "an important principle" (or, to put it another way, a political opportunity), he says. The Opposition will support the Government if it brings forward "sensible measures which enhance independence, control costs and are sensible reforms that protect those most in need".

Writing in the Sun, Hague included disabled people in the latter category. His image-makers say Tories will oppose giving disability living allowances to local authorities to spend on behalf of the disabled. And in the new situation of Labour back-bench hostility, the parliamentary arithmetic on going for the disabled looks decidedly dodgy. MPs' postbags are already bulging with mail from the disabled. Theirs is a formidable lobby, as the last Tory disability minister, Sir Nicholas Scott, discovered to his cost.

Whichever way ministers turn, the ghost of Labour's social conscience will haunt them.