Why interim manager Harman's welfare stance is a tough balancing act

15 July 2015


Roundly criticised for urging Labour to abstain from voting on the government’s Welfare Reform Bill, deputy leader Harriet Harman is in fact weathering the storm faced by any interim boss

Jon Bennett

In the wake of two election defeats, Harriet Harman has stepped forward as leader of the opposition while the Labour Party elects a new figurehead. Harman is the longest continuously serving female MP in the House of Commons. But despite holding a slew of government and opposition posts during her career, these acting-leader assignments – with Labour spirits at their lowest – have in some ways been her biggest tests.

The challenge has been highlighted by Harman’s approach to the government’s Welfare Reform Bill. If passed, the Bill would cap benefits for families and make deep cuts to tax credits: the policy brainchild of Gordon Brown.

Harman has been strongly criticised by the Parliamentary Labour Party for urging Labour to abstain on this legislation. Her argument is that Labour “cannot afford to campaign against the public” and that blanket opposition to reform is a simple but ultimately fruitless path.


Labour MPs, including three of the four Labour leadership contenders, have publicly criticised Harman’s stance. Unite Leader Len McClusky angrily offered to send her a dictionary so she could look up what opposition means. It’s put the acting leader in the firing line from all sides – a familiar state of affairs for many interim managers.

Put broadly, interims are brought in for one of two reasons: to take an organisation through transformation and turn it around, or to fill a gap with a safe pair of hands. An interim leader of the Labour Party isn’t expected to do the former. They don’t have the necessary authority. The turnaround (if it comes) will happen when a new leader is elected. Harriet Harman is instead facing the “safe pair of hands” test, and that’s why the welfare decision poses some very particular problems.

It’s easy to assume that the job of the opposition is to vote against the government. So a gap-filling leader could get by largely unnoticed by simply going through the motions of fierce opposition to everything in the Commons. Instead, Harman has said she doesn’t want to bind the hands of the next leader. As such, her preference is to abstain, which leaves room for manoeuvre further down the line. Of course, this argument could be applied to any debate in Parliament, and if the opposition abstains on everything, it does raise the question as to why an interim leader is necessary at all.

It’s easier to see the decision as a way to get Labour talking about the electoral mountain it has to climb on welfare. Yes, the party looks split right now, but the leadership slate already points to a Labour brand that struggles to hold together an extremely broad church. If this debate makes the party think hard before it sleepwalks into a default position on welfare that has been hard to sell to the country then that’s a useful exercise.

In the end, it’s all tactics. It won’t make any difference to the bill or the poorest 20% of people in Britain – who the Institute for Fiscal Studies have calculated will be between £800 and £1300 a year worse off. To help those people, Labour has to actually win an election. Perhaps by having this difficult debate now, Harriet Harman can in some way help the party do just that.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications

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