Labour will not be voting against the government’s welfare bill and the limiting of child tax credits to two children, Harriet Harman has confirmed.
The interim Labour leader said the party could not tell the public they were wrong after two general election defeats in a row. She said Labour will oppose the cuts in tax credits for those in work and plans to redefine child poverty announced by the chancellor, George Osborne, in his summer budget last week.
In what may come to be seen as a watershed interview on the BBC Sunday Politics show, Harman seemed intent on shaking the party out of what she fears is a reversion to its comfort zone after election defeat. “We cannot simply say to the public you were wrong at the election,” she said, adding: “We have got a to wake up … The party had realise that this is not a blip and work out why.”
Her interview came after reports that she had clashed this week with the Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham over welfare during a shadow cabinet meeting, telling him he had to recognise that Labour had lost the election.
Burnham disagreed with her analysis in a dispute that is likely to play into the increasingly fraught Labour leadership contest.
Harman repeatedly warned party members “not to vote for someone think who you like and who makes you comfortable but think who will be able to reach out to the public and listen to the public and give them confidence. The point is not to have someone that we particlarly like and feel comfortable with. The point is to have someone who can command the confidence of the country. That is what they should have in their mind. There is no point doing choice in a disappointed rage.”
Her remarks can be interpreted many ways but are hardly likely to be seen as endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn, the leftwinger who is doing better than many senior party figures expected in the Labour leadership campaign.
Corbyn said: “If it is proposed that Labour MPs are being asked to vote for the government’s plans to cut benefits to families, I am not willing to vote for policies that will push more children into poverty. Families are suffering enough. We shouldn’t play the government’s political games when the welfare of children is at stake.”
A Labour spokeswoman said the party would vote against the budget on Tuesday in opposition to the overall cuts to tax credits, but would abstain on the welfare bill and would look for some changes such as dropping the proposed reduction in the employment support allowance to the level of jobseeker’s allowance.
An aide to Harman said the interim leader was ready to take some heat over the issue, including possibly at a meeting of Labour MPs on Monday night but that she felt she had a responsibility to send some messages to the public.
“How the party reacts in the early days of opposition can be very formative to how people the party as it discovered in 2010. None thinks she is on the right of the party but she is reflecting very deeply on what she has heard right across the country about why the party has lost twice.
“She has been on the front bench for 20 years she will no longer be leader on 13 September.”
Tristam Hunt, the shadow education secretary, also tried to shake the party up. He warned on Sunday that the party had no god given right to exist and that it was facing such a dramatic situation that everything should be on the table, including the possibility of an English Labour party.
Harman said it was not necessary for the party to worry about whether the Conservatives were parking their tanks on Labour’s lawns, but instead worry about whether the public thought it was listening to what they thought.
She said the public did not vote for the Tories because they particularly loved the party but because they did not trust Labour on the economy and on benefits.
“We have to listen and respond to that, and that is why we are going to be voting against the welfare bill we are not going to be voting against the household welfare cap and we are going to be understanding the point about three or more children,” she added.
She said she had heard working families “say so often we have got one child, we would really like another but we cannot just afford it because the child care is too expensive”.
She argued these families were working hard and they think it was unfair that others could have the bigger families they would love to have if they were in a position to do that.
“We have to listen to that. We cannot simply say to the public you were wrong we are going to carry on saying what we said before the election.
“The temptation is always to oppose everything. That does not make sense. We have got to wake up and recognise this is not a blip, and we have got to listen to why. No one is going to listen to us if they think we are not to listening to them.”
Harman defended her right to take these decisions on how to vote on welfare and the budget, arguing: “I am the leader of the opposition and there will be votes on Budget and the welfare bill. I am setting out the Labour party position.”
She added it was wrong to think that people had voted differently for different reasons against Labour, saying her analysis was that they were saying the same thing albeit in different accents all over the UK. “That they thought Labour was a risk and they were not prepared to take that risk,” she said. “One of the saddest things to me is that some of [our supporters] thought, ‘Phew it was a bit of a relief that Labour did not get elected.’”
Insisting Labour must oppose government policy where it is right to do so, Harman said changes to tax credits had left 3 million working families £1,000 worse off and where the government rhetoric does not match the reality Labour will say that. She said she was on the side of the people going to work saying they were the wealth creators.