Bedroom Tax Hypocrisy
The fact that Labour’s motion to scrap the controversial bedroom tax failed to garner enough votes to pass this week, will have surprised very few. The truth is, that among Westminster’s political classes – whether Labour or Tory – the Bedroom Tax has become a very useful device for political posturing. Conservatives can present it as some sort of “common sense” approach to those scrounger-types occupying dwindling social housing stock; whilst Labour can cite it as something, anything, which distinguishes them from the Tories.
Back in September, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Anas Sarwar, went to great lengths to stress his – and his party’s – commitment to abolishing the Bedroom Tax. In a televised debate with deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, he went as far as to brandish an entirely fictitious “No Eviction for Bedroom Tax Arrears (Scotland) Bill”, insisting that it could have all ended there, with a mere stroke of Sturgeon’s pen. In reality, it was another two weeks till Labour finally announced that if elected at the next general election, they would abolish the bedroom tax. Despite the fanfare of this announcement, it had taken the party close to two years to catch up with public opinion, since the Welfare Reform Act was first floated by the coalition government.
On Tuesday, the Labour Party in Westminster tabled a motion calling on ministers to end deductions for social tenants with spare bedrooms with “immediate effect”. As it turned out, the motion was defeated by a margin of just 26 votes. Now, on the surface, this wouldn’t come as a huge surprise to most people; the coalition government after all, has a majority of 76. Depressingly though, it wasn’t the government majority that defeated this motion, but the failure of a whopping 47 Labour MPs who didn’t bother to turn up and vote on it. Among those who didn’t vote, were our very own Anas Sarwar and some guy called Gordon Brown.
Labour spin doctors weren’t exactly worn out in terms of damage limitation, given that the media didn’t seem to pick up on any of this, focusing instead on the fact that the Tories had tragically, but perhaps inevitably, won the day. The Labour line that appeared to have been decided on though, was summed up in a tweet from Labour Whips:
“For those asking, we operate a pairing system with the Tories and therefore it would have made no difference to [the] majority on [The Bedroom Tax]”
‘Pairing’ basically refers to a multitude of informal pacts between Labour and Tory (or Lib-Dem) MPs on how they vote, so as to allow them a – sort of – clear conscience if they don’t turn up. All sounds pretty democratic, if you like you like your MPs to make deals with their opponents to ensure their own policies get defeated that is. Yes, it’s so democratic in fact, that pairing isn’t recognised by the House of Commons’ own rules – except to say that “Pairing is not allowed in divisions of great political importance”. Therefore, we must conclude, by definition, that the Labour Party do not – and did not – consider their motion to end the Bedroom Tax as politically important.
The truth is that Labour’s heart was never really in this vote. You see, it’s a little known fact that the Bedroom Tax, or “spare room subsidy” was actually piloted by the Labour Party all the way back in 2001. Malcolm Wicks (former Parliamentary undersecretary of state in the Department of Work & Pensions) is quoted in Hansard, saying:
“The under-occupation pilot encourages housing benefit recipients living in under-occupied social housing to move to smaller and cheaper accommodation in order to make more efficient use of housing stock.”
Of course all of this was pre Iraq, and the Blair government’s halo was yet to properly fall, so little was made of it back then. And certainly, no one was comparing it to Thatcher’s Poll Tax.
Ultimately, the situation in which we find ourselves now, with the Bedroom Tax, is symbolic of the changing perspectives in UK politics and the way it gets reflected throughout the media. When New Labour emerged in the mid-nineties, it offered the media something they’d never had before: a government that would be at their beck and call 24/7. The tragic flipside of that, was that governments from then on would be bound to neglect all else in order to make room for the “party line”. The legacy of that era is Westminster as it is today, comprising 2 two parties whose principles are practically identical, and whose differences may only now be apparent in their carefully thought out branding.
Say what you will about the Tories, but they are what they are – and for whatever reason, they’re proud of it. They have never (convincingly anyway) tried to pretend that they are compassionate, progressive or even remotely left wing. David Cameron’s party is the party of the rich, the powerful, the social elite – but we know that, and we’ve always known that.
The Labour Party on the other hand is far less easy to place. We know they want our votes, and we know that they’re not Tories. Beyond that though, it’s extremely difficult to name something concrete that Labour fundamentally disagree with the Tories on – especially given that they don’t think the Bedroom Tax is “politically important”.
The sight of Ed Miliband addressing the anti-cuts march in 2011 said it all; here was the party that had blithely turned a blind eye to years of impropriety in the city as the credit crunch and financial crisis of 2008 loomed, now revelling in their new-found opposition status. Miliband’s posturing was to imply somehow that his was a party of principle, and maybe, just maybe, a party of the left.
But make no mistake; Labour is not a party of the left. I will never forget the BBC’s special Labour Party leaders debate that preceded Miliband’s (accidental) election, on which a question was posed to all candidates as to whether their leadership might signal a shift towards the left. Not one of the panel could bring themselves to utter the word “left” in their responses, not even Diane Abbott.
All of this is really part of the Americanisation of UK politics, wherein the influence of the city, the influence of business, and the influence of the media has resulted in a sustained shift to the right. This is not just Thatcher’s legacy, but Blair’s too.
The Bedroom Tax is merely the tip of the iceberg that is Austerity Britain. It has become a symbol of Westminster’s approach to public finances – regardless of who’s in government – all too often characterised as a charity-like arm of taxation, a burden placed upon us by poor people. Therefore it ought to be poor people who bear the brunt when the funds are running low. It is a fundamentally right wing attitude, and it is not applied universally; the banking crisis cost taxpayers far more, and yet we barely skipped a beat in agreeing to bail them out, we didn’t even require them to change their ways!
This is the kind of politics that has afflicted Britain since the early eighties, and it has managed to do so pretty much uninterrupted. Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron have all been singing from the same tattered hymn sheet. UK Politics as it stands has drifted off into a world that’s entirely removed from the voters. Politicians are now so cut off, that they sincerely believe that the only change required is for their own party to be returned to power.
Fundamental change is needed, but it can’t come soon enough. The massive change that could be brought about by – say – a proportional voting system could vastly improve Westminster’s democratic credentials, but it will not happen as long as the world inhabited by our politicians is so far removed from that of the electorate.
We should be excited that Scottish independence can, and almost definitely will change this. Not just for Scotland, but for the whole of the UK. It seems likely that only an event as seismic as independence will be enough to stir the chronic indifference at the heart of the British establishment, into finally accepting what the rest of us have long since known:
It doesn’t work.