Shadow cabinet fact-finding missions across the pond

Recess has allowed a few key figures the chance to attend the US conventions.

One of the very few consolations of political opposition is the time it affords to think. The pace of government often precludes development of new ideas and dispassionate pondering of the situation. The point at which ministers tend to get a new perspective on things usually coincides with the moment they are sacked. Hence the quaint convention of the "summer reading list" - the titles that it is recommended MPs read by the pool in their precious few weeks of leisure: a new biography of an eminent Victorian; a book by an American neuroscientist promising a revolution in economics and society encapsulated in a single abstract noun (e.g. Banality: Why Saying Nothing is the New Everything); the much-praised diaries of a witty but ultimately unsuccessful politician, recently retired or deceased.

But the real hardcore do not satisfy themselves with reading books about politics and economics on their summer holidays. Oh no. The truly dedicated take the opportunity, when things get quiet at Westminster, to immerse themselves in other countries' politics. Lord Steward Wood, one of Ed Miliband's closest advisors and a highly influential figure in the shadow cabinet, is currently at the Republican Party National Convention in Tampa, Florida. He is also going to the Democratic Party gathering next week in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also at that jamboree will be Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary.

America has always had a unique hold on the imaginations of British politicians and the current generation at the top of the Labour party have all passed through US colleges. Ed Miliband took a sabbatical from his time in Gordon Brown's treasury to teach at Harvard. Ed Balls was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard after graduating from Oxford. Douglas Alexander studied for a year at the University of Pennsylvania - and worked on Michael Dukakis's failed bid for the White House.

It isn't yet clear what Labour's top brass hope to learn from sitting in the stands in the opening rounds of this year's presidential election. There isn't any doubt about which side Miliband will be rooting for. (The same cannot be said for David Cameron - as I noted here.)

The tone and structure of American political debate seems ever more removed from the kind of discourse that works in Westminster. The macroeconomic dividing lines about debt, deficit and stimulus are not dissimilar; the deep lagoons of culture war venom are wholly alien. But then the main reason top British opposition politicians go to visit US political conventions is pretty simple: because it is great theatre, because it is fascinating and because - unburdened by government jobs - they can.

Ed Miliband meeting Barack Obama in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Owen Smith promises to be a "cold-eyed revolutionary" - but tiptoes round Brexit

The Labour leader challenger takes Jeremy Corbyn on at his own anti-austerity game. 

Owen Smith may be challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership but it seems he has learnt a thing or two from his former boss. 

One year on from abstaining from the Tory Welfare Bill - a decision he now says he regrets - Smith attacked the former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity policies from Orgreave, a former steel plant which was pivotal during the miners’ strike.  

Listing frustrations from library cuts to delayed trains, Smith declared: “Behind all of these frustrations is one cause – austerity.”

Borrowing the rhetoric that served Corbyn so well, he banged the drum about pay, labour rights and fair taxes. 

Indeed, a spokesman from Jeremy for Labour popped up to say as much: “We welcome Owen’s focus on equality of outcome, reindustrialisation and workers' rights - and his support for policies announced in recent months by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

On policy, though, Smith showed a touch of his own. 

His description of the Department for Work and Pensions as “a byword for cruelty and insecurity” resonates with the deep fear many benefit claimants feel for this faceless but all powerful authority. His promise to scrap it will not go unnoticed.

Another promise, to end the public sector pay freeze, is timely given widespread expectations that withdrawing from the EU’s single market will push up prices. 

He also appealed to the unions with a pledge to scrap the “vicious and vindictive” Trade Union Act. 

The policies may be Corbynite, but where Smith stands out is his determination to be specific and practical. He is selling himself as the Corbyn who actually gets things done. Asked about what he would replace zero-hours contracts with, he responded: "Well it could be one [hour]. But it can't be zero."

As he concluded his speech, he promised “revolution” but continued:

“Not some misty eyed romanticism about a revolution to overthrow capitalism.

“But a cold-eyed, practical, socialist revolution, through a radical Labour Government that puts in place the laws and the levers that can genuinely even things up.”

Smith’s speech, though, steered clear of grappling with the big issues of Brexit. He stands in favour of a second referendum on the Brexit deal, which may appease Labour's inner city voters but could frustrate others who voted Leave.

On the free movement of people – widely viewed as a dividing line between Labour’s Corbynite members and the wider voting population - he has been vague. He has previously expressed support for the "progressive case against freedom of movement" and criticised Corbyn for failing to understand patriotism. But this is not the same as drawing up policy. Whether he can come up with strong views on immigration and still appeal to both voter bases will be his biggest challenge of all. 

Owen Smith's 20 policies

1.      A pledge to focus on equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity 
2.      Scrapping the DWP and replacing it with a Ministry for Labour and a Department for Social Security
3.      Introducing modern wages councils for hotel, shop and care workers to strengthen terms and conditions
4.      Banning zero hour contracts
5.      Ending the public sector pay freeze
6.      Extending the right to information and consultation to cover all workplaces with more than 50 employees
7.      Ensuring workers’ representation on remuneration committees
8.      Repealing the Trade Union Act
9.      Increase spending on the NHS by 4 per cent in real-terms in every year of the next parliament
10.  Commit to bringing NHS funding up to the European average within the first term of a Labour Government
11.  Greater spending on schools and libraries
12.  Re-instate the 50p top rate of income tax
13.  Reverse the reductions in Corporation Tax due to take place over the next four years
14.  Reverse cuts to Inheritance Tax announced in the Summer Budget
15.  Reverse cuts to Capital Gains Tax announced in the Summer Budget
16.  Introduce a new wealth Tax on the top 1 per cent earners
17.  A British New Deal unveiling £200bn of investment over five years
18.  A commitment to invest tens of billions in the North of England, and to bring forward High Speed 3
19.  A pledge to build 300,000 homes in every year of the next parliament – 1.5 million over five years
20.  Ending the scandal of fuel poverty by investing in efficient energy