A good rule of playing the game in 2015 is if George Osborne lays a trap and erects a great neon sign that reads "this here is a trap", avoidance is probably the correct way to proceed. In this case, as Andrew Gwynne points out, the Tories had deliberately sugared the nasty pill with 'nice' things like more apprenticeships, help for troubled families, and cuts to social housing rents. Voting against the second reading of the bill means voting against those things too. But come on, that stance is pretty naive. Do you really think the Tories in the present climate are going to score points on cutting rents to people they've successfully painted as council estate detritus? Everything in the bill is overdetermined by cuts. That's what's being reported, that's what "normal" people are seeing. As with so many thing it's about perception, something that new MP Cat Smith gets. Furthermore, 22 Tory MPs also abstained - had the bulk of Labour not done so a morale-shaking defeat might have been inflicted on the government and spun them into crisis instead.
Moving to the leadership candidates, what's been happening here? There is some confusion as the Welfare Reform Bill doesn't deal with the issue of tax credits, which three of the four clearly opposed. Most of the ire, however, has been reserved for Andy Burnham. If his leadership campaign can be distinguished by one thing, it's not passion: it's flip-floppery. How many U-turns and contradictions can one man perform? We've had "Labour spent too much, but I'm not going to apologise for new schools, hospitals, etc.". We've heard him praise the 2015 manifesto as the best one he's ever stood on, only to have him criticise it in hustings as too narrow. He said on Sunday that he'd be happy to have Jeremy Corbyn in his shadow cabinet, only to have it ruled out a few hours later. And then, after abstaining in last night's vote he writes "If I am elected leader in September, I am determined that Labour will fight this regressive Bill word by word, line by line."
To be fair to Andy in this instance, he did qualify that with "if the Government do not make major changes to protect working families, children and the disabled, then, under my Leadership, Labour will oppose this Bill with everything we’ve got". In other words, if the amendments Labour put down on the bill don't get through committee (they're very unlikely to) then Andy will lead his troops through the no lobby when it returns for passage into law. Once again, especially in the context of his less than smooth record, Andy should have paid attention to perceptions.
There is, however, a very good reason why the three abstainers um, abstained that is unrelated to the specifics of this issue. It comes down to party discipline. Whoever wins is going to have to manage the party and ensure the PLP act in a (relatively) disciplined fashion. There are a number of ways this ongoing process can be accomplished, such as balancing out different trends and factions in the shadow cabinet. Ed Miliband, for instance, packed his first shadcab with Blairites not because he was a Blairite but because they were a weighty contingent in the parliamentary party. They had backed his brother by a wide margin and had to be accommodated. As the parliament wore on they were gradually whittled away and replaced by Milipeople. It helped ensure a high degree of party unity and also deferred the expression of divisions to now. An essential tool of management, the incoming leader is going to need to appeal to loyalty to the office and loyalty to the party. Do not underestimate how powerful this is - MPs who abstained last night aren't the only ones who've abided by the whip to do less-than-palatable things. However, for any leader to call on this resource they have to show respect for it themselves. Suppose Andy or Yvette as the two favourites win. They are likely to be victorious off the back of second preference votes and will face a PLP where approximately two thirds didn't nominate them. They are going to have to call on that party loyalty at some point, but it would be much harder for them to do so if they rebelled against the party whip on this occasion. Some readers are going to find this unprincipled behaviour, but it's par the course for parliamentary and party manoeuvres. Think back to Iain Duncan Smith in his time as one of John Major's 'bastards'. How did repeated disloyalty and back bench shenanigan-stirring work out for him when he was leader?
Once again, because it's the internet, this isn't a soft soaping of would-be leaders that excuses their abstention on a crucial political issue but an attempt at understanding why some key political actors do what they do. Understanding, after all, is the route to wisdom.