It is as predictable as the changing of the seasons. Last week Labour used an Opposition Day Motion to bring forward another motion against the bedroom tax. The proposal was simple and broad – immediate abolition.
As with previous instances of using this strategy, a key aim was to make the Liberal Democrats look either stupidly inconsistent or cravenly unwilling to vote against the Conservatives. And Labour, presumably, hoped they’d get both. The run up to the vote was accompanied by high profile articles in the Mirror pointing to the distress caused by the policy and calling for the Labour motion to be supported.
When Liberal Democrat support for the motion, rather predictably, failed to materialise it opened up space for further negative headlines in certain parts of the press. The Liberal Democrats’ inconsistency was highlighted – after all it wasn’t that long ago that Nick Clegg publicly withdrew the party’s support from the policy – as was their complicity in supporting the Conservative party – sorry, “Government” – amendment which took an overtly tribal position on the issue.
Over at Liberal Democrat Voice on Thursday Caron offered a three part defence of the Liberal Democrat voting strategy on the Labour motion. It has generated a fairly extensive comment thread, including some incisive comments highlighting the key criticisms. Most of these criticisms are not new, but they are worth revisiting.
Caron’s three arguments in defence of the Parliamentary party’s approach are i) that the whole thing was just a Labour party stunt and didn’t make any reference to Andrew George’s Affordable Homes Bill; ii) Labour’s motion does nothing for private tenants affected by a similar measure introduced by the last Labour government; and iii) The Government amendment that was passed made specific reference to Liberal Democrat policy.
I’m very happy to accept that this captures the line of thinking that underpinned the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party’s approach. But I’m not at all convinced it provides a particularly compelling justification for that approach. I’ll take the points in a different order.
First, did Labour introduce something similar in the private rented sector and would a proposal only be acceptable if it did something about the private rented sector as well? The Labour government’s reforms to housing benefit in the private rented sector could be argued to introduce a system with a similar structure to that now being applied in the social rented sector. A key difference is that the policy only applied to new tenancies, not retrospectively. Caron’s post identifies this as a slight difference, but it is this difference that means the bedroom tax policy has had an immediate and profound impact on households living in one segment of the housing market.
Unlike the bedroom tax, on day one of the local housing allowance changes in the private rented sector no one was instantaneously made poorer simply by continuing to occupy their existing dwelling, or finding themselves unable to address the problem by moving. In the case of the bedroom tax, many households who are already, by definition, on low incomes have limited room to manoeuvre in stopping rent arrears accumulating.
Under the LHA changes, people who had to move to a new private rented sector dwelling would be aware – hopefully – that the amount of assistance from housing benefit they were eligible for had been reduced and they may well not be able to afford the same range of properties as would have been the case previously. But that is a problem of a rather different type and magnitude.
The analogy with the private sector doesn’t really work so it is not at all obvious that a motion must to do something about what is happening in the private rented sector in order to be acceptable. The problem in the social rented sector is sufficiently acute to justify action in isolation. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems with the way housing benefit in the private rented sector is structured, but they are different problems. And they are problems that, we might note parenthetically, the Coalition has exacerbated by changing the basis of the private rented sector LHA calculation to make assistance ever less generous.
Second, while the Government amendment mentions Liberal Democrat policy nothing of any significance follows from that. A lot of hope is pinned on Andrew George’s Private Members’ Bill. Yet, even as it was being proposed a number of housing commentators and housing lawyers considered it to be unworkable in practice, as originally drafted. But such niceties have been largely overtaken by the small matter of the absence of a money resolution. Without one the Bill is dead. The Liberal Democrats might have struck some new deal with the Conservatives which means that voting for a vacuous Government amendment on Wednesday would result in the Treasury allowing a money resolution for the Affordable Homes Bill. I’ve no idea. But, if I’m honest, I suspect that the reappearance of the Bill in the House would constitute one of the most spectacular resurrections since Lazarus.
So that brings us to the question of Labour game playing. It is hard to argue with this point. It most certainly has all the hallmarks of a strategy primarily designed to make the Liberal Democrats look foolish. That doesn’t mean the Labour party are being disingenuous in claiming they want the bedroom tax abolished. They’ve now made so many public pronouncements to that effect they are going to look pretty stupid if they don’t follow through with it. But they just must know that an Opposition Day Motion, which the government is not bound by, is hardly a sturdy enough vehicle with which to reach that objective.
The question is, even if it is transparently game playing, what is the best response? Vote against and you gift headlines to those papers who want to portray the Liberal Democrats as self-contradictory Conservative stooges who claim a moderating influence but in reality provide little consolation to the poor and vulnerable. One comment on the LDV comment thread captured this perspective rather nicely:
… the perception is, and I think rightly so, that if Conference voted to provide the poor with free Apples to eat, and Labour presented a bill suggesting free Pears, while the Tories tried with a bill letting the poor eat air, the parliamentary party would vote against the Labour bill on the basis of its imperfection, and with the Tories on the basis that obviously without the presence of the party in the coalition then clearly the Tories would have presented a bill for the poor to eat nails. And that this is the evidence of the net gain achieved by the Lib Dems being in coalition. And the polls say…
On the other hand, vote in support of the Labour motion and you may have avoided those headlines, but you’d have given a different section of the press the opportunity to poke the Coalition with a stick on division and differentiation. It would be further ammunition for the argument that the Liberal Democrats are being all kinds of incoherent in voting against a policy they voted into law. The Liberal Democrats might get away with that if they were willing to come out more strongly and say that the original support for the bedroom tax had been a mistake. But, as we know only too well, in modern politics appearance of error, and admitting to error, is to be avoided at all costs.
It is not an easy call, but I think I would have preferred to see the Liberal Democrat backbenchers abstain on both the Labour motion, because it won’t really achieve anything, and the Government amendment, because it doesn’t really do anything very meaningful to further Liberal Democrat policy or a genuine change in policy on the bedroom tax. Alternatively, they could have voted against both. They weren’t bound to vote with the Government.
While either approach would no doubt have generated negative press, if the vote had been accompanied by a firm statement on the reasons – that Labour’s motion was of no consequence and the Government amendment wasn’t a serious step forward – then at least it might have been possible to shape the narrative, rather than allow it to be shaped in a way that does further damage.
Image: via flickr.com under Creative Commons.