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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.