Ed Miliband's Labour Q&A: 10 highlights

Labour leader says he will attend anti-austerity march on 20 October.

A jacketless Ed Miliband, evidently buoyed by the media response to his speech, breezed his way through this afternoon's Q&A session with Labour delegates. Here are ten notable points from it.

1. Miliband reaffirms his green credentials

After criticism over his failure to mention the environment in yesterday's speech, the former Climate Change Secretary sought to reaffirm his green credentials. He attacked George Osborne's belief that "you can either have a good environment or a good economy", adding: "I don't know what planet future Osbornes are planning to live on".

Elsewhere, he said that he was angered that the aviation debate was dominated by economic considerations, rather than environmental ones. If the UK was to meet its legally-binding commitment to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, aviation had to "play its role".

2. "Comrades"

Evidently convinced that he's seen off the "Red Ed" jibes, Miliband twice addressed delegates in the traditional socialist manner - "comrades".

3. Miliband will attend anti-cuts demo

To cheers from delegates, Miliband confirmed that he would attend the TUC's anti-austerity march on 20 October.

4. Living wage: "not a panacea"

While promising to work to ensure that more employers pay the living wage, Miliband emphasised that it was not "a panacea".

"It doesn't solve the problem, it will just make a difference over and above the minimum wage," he said.

He promised to consider whether government contractors should be legally obliged to pay the living wage but added that fiscal constraints meant this may not be feasible.

5. Rejects free schools

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has promised that Labour will support free schools provided they meet certain tests, but Miliband cited them as an example of where the coalition was going wrong, suggesting that they are, by definition, a negative development.

6. On Trident: "I'm not a unilateralist"

Invited to support nuclear disarmament, Miliband replied that he was not a "unilateralist" but a "multilateralist" (a stance that will likely disappoint his mother, an early CND activist). The government should aim to retain the "minimum deterrent" required for security purposes, he said.

7. Supports votes at 16

Miliband confirmed his support for lowering the voting age and argued that the government would have reconsidered its decision to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance were 16-year-olds were able to vote.

8. Opposes Labour candidates in Northern Ireland

While he wished Labour members standing for election in Northern Ireland well, Miliband said that he feared it would compromise the British government's status as an "honest broker".

9. Reassurance on public sector pay freeze

Miliband emphasised the need for pay restraint in the public sector but sought to reassure delegates by stating that he "was not talking about the next parliament". He added that Labour would not implement the 1% pay cap in the same way as the government, there would be more discrimination.

10. Who will win the election

Seeking to frame the 2015 election campaign, Miliband said that the winner would be the party that "unites, rather than divides, Britain".

Ed Miliband answers questions from delegates at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit