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Post-defeat Labour 'behaving like a petulant child' - Chuka Umunna

Published 17/07/2015

Former Labour leadership candidate Chuka Umunna has accused his party of 'screaming at the electorate'
Former Labour leadership candidate Chuka Umunna has accused his party of 'screaming at the electorate'

Chuka Umunna has accused Labour of "behaving like a petulant child" following his party's election defeat amid a row among his colleagues over the Government's proposed welfare cuts.

Mr Umunna, who was a leadership candidate before withdrawing, said the party was "screaming at the electorate" when it should be attempting to "meet people where they are at".

His comments came after Harriet Harman accepted Labour MPs' demands to be able to register a vote against elements of the Conservative's welfare squeeze in a bid to quell a mounting revolt over her support for a tax credit curb.

Mr Umunna also cautioned the party to be wary of "traps that the Conservatives are setting for us".

The shadow business secretary told Newsnight: "We were sent a very strong message by the electorate at this general election, and we are behaving like a petulant child who has been told you can't have the sweeties in the sweetshop, you can't have power.

"And now we're running around stamping our feet, screaming at the electorate when ultimately what we need to do is meet people where they are at, not necessarily where we would want them to be.

"That does not involve simply saying the Tories were right, and we've got to think, what are the traps that the Conservatives are setting for us, and do we just walk into them or do we actually box clever and smart so that we can get back into government and build that socially just more equal society that we all want?"

The party has been divided over how to react to benefits curbs set out by George Osborne in last week's Budget.

Under pressure from three of the four leadership contenders to reverse a decision not to oppose a reduced benefits cap and a two-child limit on tax credits, the Ms Harman will table a "wrecking" amendment to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

The interim leader has made clear that, if the amendment fails, MPs will be expected not to vote against the progress of the legislation to detailed consideration, renewing warnings that Labour must "listen to the public concerns about welfare".

That would leave whoever emerged as the victor of the leadership election in September free to decide how to proceed at the later stages of the Bill's passage through Parliament, a spokesman said.

At least 40 rebels led by former welfare minister Helen Goodman had tabled their own amendment to the Bill in a bid to force Ms Harman's hand over her refusal to condemn the entire crackdown on benefits set out in Chancellor's Budget.

Three of the four would-be leaders have denounced the stance - with Liz Kendall the only one to endorse it publicly - and front-runner Andy Burnham calling for a such a "reasoned amendment" at a shadow cabinet meeting.

Ms Harman argued at a fraught meeting of the parliamentary party on Monday that doing so would make Labour appear to voters that it was opposed to all cuts - telling them the party had gained nothing from pursuing such a strategy under Ed Miliband.

But a party spokesman confirmed that she had agreed to table an amendment setting out parts of the Bill the Opposition backed, including a lower cap on a household's annual welfare support and moving mortgage support from grants to loans, and which it opposed, such as cuts to disability benefit and scrapping child poverty targets.

"As Harriet said at the weekend, Labour is going to listen to the public's concerns on welfare and at the same time be an effective opposition challenging Tory policies which are unfair and unworkable."

The change of heart was "the best way forward", he said.

A spokeswoman for shadow home secretary and leadership candidate Yvette Cooper said: "Yvette met with Harriet today and argued again - as she has consistently - in favour of a reasoned amendment.

"We welcome this and are pleased Harriet listened."

The text of the amendment - which includes no reference to the two-child restriction that has been one of the major points of contention, says Labour backs "controls on and reforms to the overall costs of social security" and believes "a benefits cap and loans for mortgage interest support are necessary changes to the welfare system".

However, it goes on to say the Bill should be abandoned because it "will prevent the Government from continuing to pursue an ambition to reduce child poverty in both absolute and relative terms; effectively repeals the Child Poverty Act 2010 which provides important measures and accountability of government policy in relation to child poverty; and includes a proposal for the Employment and Support Allowance (work-related activity component) which is an unfair approach to those who are sick and disabled".

Ms Goodman's more strongly-worded version welcomed only "potentially useful provisions on apprenticeships" and attacked the legislation for "ignoring the plight of children in low-income working households, removing the concept of child poverty from the statute book, increasing the number of children, especially those from large families, living in poverty, worsening work incentives for people whose incomes are below average and reducing the incomes of sick and disabled people".

Ms Goodman said: "I am pleased Harriet Harman sees the need for Labour to oppose the attacks on children living in poverty and sick and disabled people set out in the Tory welfare Bill."

None of the Labour leadership contenders signed her amendment but it was endorsed by deputy leadership front-runner Tom Watson and London mayoral hopefuls David Lammy and Diane Abbott.

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