Don’t tell anyone, but George Osborne probably let out a sigh of relief when Baroness Manzoor’s fatal motion failed last night.
Of course, it was inevitable that Labour peers would rather bravely abstain on the cuts to tax credits, as their elected counterparts did in July. And Jeremy Corbyn is probably skating on thin ice, given that the scandal of Labour abstaining in July put him where he is today.
Eagle-eyed watchers will note that the Government majority was smaller than the number of active Labour peers. But what was most sickening, of course, was that more Labour peers actually voted against the fatal motion than for it. Sure, only eleven of them actually voted, but only four of those stood up for the working poor.
Indeed, John McDonnell famously stated that he would “swim through vomit” to defy the Labour whip to abstain on the Welfare Bill – which he did. But on Andrew Marr this past Sunday, McDonnell signalled that Labour could support tax credit cuts – if “real protection” is given to the worse-off.
Of course, Osborne has no plans of modifying these plans other than surface changes to make it look like he’s offering those protections. So Labour gave him three years to figure out the exact spin he’ll use, instead of killing the tax credit cuts outright.
But what of our motion? Well, let’s imagine it would have passed. There is no easy victory for George Osborne. He would have had three options: pack the Lords, try his hand at a money bill, or abandon the bill.
In the case of the first option, David Cameron would have had to appoint at least 150 cronies to create the largest legislative house in the world. At a time where Osborne is lecturing us to live within our means, spending tens of millions on salaries for rich donors, to push through cuts on the working poor, is not going to look good for anybody.
The second is bringing it back as a money bill. While it would bypass the Lords, its passage through the Commons would not be secured. Tory MPs like Heidi Allen are getting cold feet at the cuts that the Government promised not to implement – although not enough to vote against them just yet. The bill committee would be likely to force a reconsideration.
If the Tories wanted to make a constitutional crisis, it would be one that they would lose. After all, the Lords is not bound by the Salisbury convention, not least because the Tories promised not to cut credits. But either answer to this constitutional crisis will end up with an elected upper house.
The Parliament Act was never meant to be a permanent feature of the constitution. Its preamble states that the restriction of the upper house to scrutinise the budget at all was a transitionary measure until the house was elected. The debate over an elected Lords was won 104 years ago. It’s time for Labour and the Conservatives to get with the program.
The worst part of Labour’s strategy is that it gives the Tories an easy ride. The primary job of an Opposition is to oppose, after all. Labour should be making the Government sweat on every vote. Only that way can proper scrutiny be offered. But wholesale Labour abstentions make these measures look more accepted than they are. Instead of a scrappy and harmful parliamentary vote, the Tories are getting three-figure majorities on bills which Labour should be opposing.
And if Labour won’t take up the job of Opposition, we are more than happy to do so for them.
* Sarah Noble is an activist in Calderdale. Alongside her role on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats executive, she shares a keen interest in devolution and transport policy.