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Forget Osborne. It was Miliband's afternoon, says Mehdi Hasan

Miliband can do it - give him a chance.

Forget the Budget. As the IPPR's Will Straw pointed out on Twitter:

What a waste of an hour. Nothing in the #Budget that hadnt been leaked.

Indeed. The Hugh Dalton era is well and truly over. George Osborne stood at the despatch box, with his glass of water, and performed a glorified version of a TV-news-channel paper review, confirming the various leaks and briefings to the press - from the cut in the top rate of tax to the increase in the tax allowance. But there was no still no sign of a stimulus package; no plan for growth. The Osborne slump continues.

The economics, therefore, took a backseat to the politics. This was, after all, yet another test for Ed Miliband. How would he perform? What would he say? How would he sound? The coalition's bizarre decision to slash the popular 50p top rate of tax, in particular, presented the leader of the opposition with an open goal - and, this time, he didn't miss. He looked - and sounded - confident; his opponents, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, looked exasperated and annoyed as they sat and listened.

Miliband had facts:

What did the Chancellor say in August last year about America's more balanced deficit plan:

"Those who spent the whole of the past year telling us to follow the American example need to answer this simple question: why has the US economy grown more slowly than the UK economy?"

Mr Deputy Speaker, the numbers are in.

And the Chancellor is plain wrong.

The US economy grew at 1.7% last year, twice the rate of ours.

This Government have run out of excuses.

He had outrage:

Under his tax cut, a banker earning five million pounds will get an extra £240,000 a year.

Let's call this what it really is:

The Government's very own bankers' bonus.

He had humour:

It is great to support the great British success stories like Downton Abbey.

A tale of a group of out of touch millionaires.

Who act like they're born to rule.

But turn out to be no good at it.

Sound familiar Mr Deputy Speaker?

We all know it's a costume drama.

They think it's a fly on the wall documentary.

My own favourite gag/trick was when the Labour leader asked members of the coalition cabinet, seated opposite him, to raise their hands if they would be personally benefiting from the cut in the 50p top rate of tax. It was a cheap shot - but it hit home. Millionaire ministers shifted uneasily in their seats; some - I'm looking at you William Hague and George Young! - looked away and pretended not to hear. "Just nod," proclaimed Miliband, deploying a favourite put-down of the Prime Minister to great effect.

It was, in my view, a brilliant speech - especially given how difficult and awkward it is for leaders of the opposition to respond to Budget statements in the Commons, at such short notice. One friend of Miliband told me: "We were pretty pleased." Well, that's an understatement! Another source close to the Labour leader said the speech was a "group effort" but that "Ed and Torsten [Henricson-Bell, Miliband's economics adviser and the Labour Party's new director of policy] get most credit" for writing it. If only his conference speech had been delivered with such gusto. . .

The former Labour minister and ardent Blairite, George Foulkes, who backed David Miliband in the 2010 leadership contest, tweeted:

Ed Miliband has delivered the best Budget response I have heard from Opposition Leaders in 33 years in Parliament.

Brother David joined the tributes, with this brief tweet:

Excellent Budget response by Ed

The pessimists and defeatists on the Labour front and backbenches should take note not just of the dismal failure of the coalition's austerity measures - which some of the more right-wing among them would like to ape and emulate - but also their leader's bravura performance this afternoon. Yes, I admit: they are few and far between; far too few for my liking. But Miliband can do it. So, as I've said before, give him a chance.

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Ukrainians now have more freedom of travel - but less freedom of thought

Ukraine's government is rightly concerned about Russian cyber aggression. But does that merit online censorship?

Ukrainians have sacrificed so much in their bid to be recognised as fellow Europeans. Their struggle to extricate themselves from Russian domination is written in the blood of the Euromaidan protestors and the toll of its military dead.

The slow progress of Ukraine’s emergence, into something resembling normality, passed another milestone on 17 May, when President Petro Poroshenko signed an agreement with the EU allowing for visa-free travel in 34 European countries. 

From Sunday 11 June Ukrainians with biometric passports will be able to travel in Europe and stay for 90 days within a 180 period. There are obvious economic benefits to the new agreement. Ukrainians will be free to travel and conduct business with much more efficacy. The new agreement will also reduce the insularity of Ukrainians, many of whom yearn for the cosmopolitanism they see in Western Europe. President Poroshenko was mindful of the symbolism of the agreement. He declared: "Ukraine is returning to the European family. Ukraine says a final farewell to the Soviet and Russian empire."

Perched on the periphery, Ukraine is now set to become more woven into the European mainstream. Ukrainians sense that the western door is slowly but inexorably opening, and that both recognition, and validation beckons. In this respect, it seems that there is much to celebrate.

However, as ever, Ukraine hangs uneasily in the balance between the old ways and the new. On 16 May, Poroshenko signed a decree blocking access to Russian social media websites Yandex, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. Millions of Ukrainians sign in to these websites every day. Even Poroshenko himself uses them. Five Russian TV stations are already banned in Ukraine. Poroshenko says that "Ukrainians can live without Russian networks". And it is certainly a fact that Ukrainians have responded to the decree by turning away from the Russian platforms in great numbers. Ukrainian Facebook is growing by some 35 percent a day.

In the context of Ukraine’s continuing conflict with Russia, it is perhaps understandable that the government in Kiev wishes to limit Russian trolls, together with Russian state influence and misinformation. This is certainly also the case across the whole western world, which is keenly aware of Russian cyber aggression. Nevertheless, one must ask why countries such as Britain, France and Germany continue to allow their citizens to access Russian media platforms, when Ukraine does not. 

While the new travel freedoms for Ukrainians has unleashed optimism, the latest decree has indicated something a little darker about the future. President Poroshenko would do well to consider the actions of other European governments that he so ardently wishes to emulate. Closing down social networks is usually done by authoritarian regimes like North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia. But Poroshenko advocates democracy, and in democracy there is no place for such acts. It is surely a mark of a nation’s maturity to encourage freedom of thought, as well travel.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.

 

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