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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear