Budget debates are usually predictable: the government proposes and the opposition opposes. The government’s flagship tax proposal from this budget was an increase in the higher rate of tax threshold. This would in practice be a tax cut to some of the more better off in our society at a time when local authority budgets and vital public services are still being cut under austerity.
If Jeremy Corbyn is known for anything, it probably would be opposing tax cuts for the wealthy. It was then an incredible about turn, based on opinion polling and focus group results more synonymous with Blair spinnery than Corbyn’s Labour, but the Shadow Chancellor announced that Labour would not be opposing the Conservative’s tax cut of the rich.
After an internal row broke out, the Labour whips – including Bristol West’s MP Thangam Debbonaire – instructed MPs to abstain on this issue. Labour was even happy for there not to be a vote on the issue, probably to save face. The Lib Dems demanded better and insisted on a vote on this controversial package. The Liberal Democrats again lead the opposition to this Tory government.
With Labour abstaining, it was a clear victory for the government. 21 Labour MPs defied the whips and voted with principle rather than with party and voted with the Lib Dems against this indefensible tax cut for higher earners.
Whilst Labour huff and puff about wanting more investment in public services, when it came down to vote against giving help to those who need it least, they simply abdicated from the debate. That money could have been used to properly fund Universal Credit or end the benefits freeze. Progressives should be defending the most vulnerable in their communities, not giving the well off a windfall.
I and other Bristol West constituents challenged Thangam on this. Her response was to dodge the question, talk about another amendment and insist that Labour would vote against the budget, but apparently didn’t feel like voting against a tax cut.
Then came her inevitable criticism of the Lib Dems. Rather than defend her decision or admit she made a mistake, Thangam employed whataboutery a tactic that is increasingly destroying political discourse. She seems to believe that she is beyond criticism because of decisions taken by others.
Thangam, again, made the wrong call. Rather than standing up and representing the interests of her constituents, she and her partners in the whips office forced Labour MPs to sit on their hands whilst the Tories gave the rich another helping hand – probably for those little extras.
This is becoming a frustrating pattern. Whether it's on Brexit, civil liberties or fair taxes, Thangam and her Labour colleagues are proving again and again why the Liberal Democrats need a larger voice in parliament. We need a strong, progressive and outward-looking voice for Bristol West.