The line peddled by the likes of Burnham, who argues that he did oppose the welfare bill because he voted for a Labour amendment (which fell), is nonsensical. Putting aside the fact that Labour’s amendment wrongly conceded on some important aspects of the bill, this position would only be defensible if Labour MPs were then to vote ‘no’. They didn’t: the whip was to abstain. This is not ‘opposing the bill’ by anyone’s reckoning. The 48 Labour rebels who did vote ‘no’ should be celebrated as heroes. Those who abstained should be ashamed of themselves.
On a different note, the figure of 48 rebels is important to another debate in the Labour Party: the leadership election. The first thing to say is that the vote demonstrates that Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is serious about opposing the Tories and the austerity agenda. Jeremy succeeded in getting 35 nominations for Labour leadership, which was brilliant. It should be noted, however, that the nominations were garnered on the basis of a democratic demand – the demand to ‘widen the debate’ – rather than any affinity with Jeremy’s politics. It seems to me that the figure of 48 is significant because it demonstrates that opposition to austerity policies goes beyond the narrower parliamentary support for Jeremy, to a broader layer of MPs who – for whatever reason (perhaps they don’t think Jeremy can win) – support other candidates for the leadership. I say this as an ardent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, but I think that the only conclusion to draw from this is that the dividing line in the fight against austerity insofar as the Labour Party is concerned is not whether or not you support Jeremy, but whether or not you support austerity. This amounts to the observation that by putting the politics first, you create a broader alliance than by putting a leadership candidate first (which makes intuitive sense to me, and is the underlying rationale behind any united front).
So, I think it’s vital that socialists in the Labour Party do everything they can to promote Jeremy’s electoral campaign, but I think it’s also necessary to wage a concerted political struggle against austerity in the Labour Party that draws in broader forces as well, a campaign for a policy of investment, not cuts. In fact, if Jeremy’s electoral campaign and the political campaign against austerity are overly conflated, we run the risk of a defeat for Jeremy’s candidacy being construed as a defeat for broader anti-austerity forces. This would severely weaken the Labour left in the aftermath of the leadership election, making it harder for us to promote a progressive economic policy under whoever takes the reins of the party.