Lone parent benefit - how can Labour MP's let it go?

David Aaronovitch rebels against their manifesto
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What would you rather be, a rebel or a conformist - a Prozaced, whipped-in, compliant tool of government, or a born-free man or woman of the people, your tousled hair catching the heady breeze up on Conscience Mountain? Not much contest, is there? Especially since, with 419 Labour MPs, your chances of getting into government aren't that great, and your national profile is lower than Wookey Hole. So join Brian Sedgemore in telling (in his colourful, rebellious words), the "arm-twisters and goolie- crushers" of the whip's office, where they can stick it.

No-one will ask you any difficult questions. You may appear on as many radio and TV programmes as you like, expressing deep concern - agony even - that the Government chooses to save money by cutting the lone parent differential, and you will not be tested once on your attitude towards benefit dependency or spending priorities. Your sole role is to be encouraged to be the rebel that you long to be. Poor single mothers and anxious interviewers will thank you for it.

And the public is on your side too. Look at that Guardian poll yesterday. Only 22 per cent thought that the Government was right to cut this benefit, and 58 per cent thought they were wrong. It's clear to you that your colleagues have made a terrible mistake, and need to be saved from their folly.

Personally, dear rebel, unfashionable though this makes me, I think you're a prat. You were elected on 1 May with a huge majority, made vast by the collapse of the Conservative vote. The manifesto on which you stood specifically eschewed increases in income tax. It's one reason why you have Labour MPs in Hornchurch, for instance, or Thanet. Many in the electorate bought your contention (oh, sorry, not yours, your leadership's) that reform and tough adherence to priorities would play the biggest part in making resources available for the Health Service and for education.

You believe they've changed their minds don't you? Now, whenever two of you rebels gather together away from the cameras, you mutter about how taxes could be put up without electoral revolt, and money applied to single parents, Welsh farmers and local authorities, if only Gordon wasn't so obsessive.

Well. look again at that poll. For, as usual, once you get beyond the headlines, a more complex picture emerges.Sixty-seven per cent agree with the Government that lone parents should be expected to go out to work once their youngest child starts school. And 47 per cent would support a far more draconian proposal than any that Harriet Harman has ever come up with, i.e. to cut the benefit of those single parents that refuse to take up offers of paid work. Forty-three per cent do not agree. That's not quite so good, is it? It does rather suggest a lack of sympathy for your argument that the best thing that many single mothers can do is spend 100 per cent of their time with their children. A luxury, incidentally, that only half of married women enjoy. And let us not forget that unemployed married women whose partners are also unemployed have to manage on less money per capita than do unemployed single mums.

This is, of course, your first really tough decision as a Labour MP, and it is as symbolic for your Government as it is for you. It could, had it chosen to make it an absolute priority, have decided to fund the cut from the magic pot. But it simply wasn't prepared to put money into benefits. Now, though its rhetoric is robust, it has been rocked by the scale of the outcry against it - your outcry. That traitor bit of every politician which desires always to be loved, is making ministers nervous - and nervous folk tend to become timid.

And it is timidity that would kill this Government. As a nation we wish to spend more of our money on health and education, because the NHS is increasingly decrepit and our education system is poor. We have the problem of a growing underclass, and there is a chronic need to modernise our infrastructure. Oh, and there are some big and unpopular battles to be fought over such issues as restrictions on cars. I got all that from your own election address. So, before the election your leader made clear that reforming the bloated and inefficient welfare system would provide one major source of the financing of this modernisation. And that is what he has begun to do.

But will you let him? Let us take an example, dear rebel. Some time back I became aware of something called the "industrial preference" (IP), created in the 1880s, which costs the exchequer pounds 500m a year. It takes the form of 50 or 60 quid a week, on top of disability benefit, or earnings, and is paid to those who have suffered a disabling injury - but only if that injury happens at work. If it happens at home (which is far more common) - that's tough. The same bit of the same finger might be missing, and you may be equally disadvantaged, no matter - you do not get the dosh.

Now, you cannot take IP away from those that already have it. But you could phase it out, and apply the money to education and health. After all, those injured at home have managed without for all these years. But the second it is touched, every trade union in Britain will shriek blue murder, and research departments all over Britain will be hard at work discovering ever more ingenious reasons why IP is such a vital part of our welfare system.

If your revolt tonight is big, what message exactly will you be sending to the Government, seven months into the new era? Put up taxes? Let rip with borrowing? Forget education? Leave the social security budget alone? Don't give us any more of this stuff about welfare dependency? Could you please avoid doing things that cause me awkward moments at the CLP meeting?

Now, it may be that you simply do not agree with what is in the manifesto, or with the Blairite project, and you're waiting till PR comes in and allows to you to set up your own socialist party; fair enough. But if not, you're a Mayfly: after the election you fluttered gaudily for a political day in Blair's sunlight, and now your wings are failing and your stamina has gone. The "goolie-crushers" to use Mr Sedgemore's elegant metaphor, should really not bother with you. Because they won't find any goolies to crush.