Time for Ed Miliband to speak up on child benefit

Labour's new leader needs to start as he means to go on and highlight the flaws in Osborne's rationa

As today's frontpages demonstrate, George Osborne's announcement yesterday that the coalition will be withdrawing universal child benefit has provoked concern and controversy across the political spectrum.

For a newly-elected leader of the opposition, this was surely a great opportunity to get stuck into the counter-arguments and start as strongly as you mean to go on. Add to this the fact that Ed Miliband has long been an advocate of maintaining universal benefits as far as possible. In September 2009, when interviewed by the BBC in his role as Labour's manifesto co-ordinator, he emphasised the importance of a mix of universal and targeted welfare, saying:

"Lots of families need the support that child benefit provides, not just the poorest."

A year on, on The Andrew Marr Show a few weeks ago, he said he didn't support reopening the issue of universal benefits, saying that means testing has "real problems", going on to say:

"I'm all for speaking hard truths. I don't personally think undermining the universal welfare state is the right thing to do."

Why, then, has Ed been so conspicuously absent from the debate since Osborne's speech yesterday?

Yvette Cooper is the only Labour figure who has made it into the coverage today in her capacity as shadow work and pensions secretary, which incidentally can't be doing her profile as a potential shadow chancellor any home. Most of the major papers feature a version of the following quote from her:

"The Government's unfair attack on child benefit is now unravelling. The Chancellor only announced means testing this morning, and already the Children's Minister has admitted that the thresholds need to be looked at again. They have clearly been taken aback by the reaction of parents across the country."

It could well be, as Iain Martin has suggested, that Labour are choosing to stand back and let the Tories face the not inconsiderable opposition from their own party, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and others, before weighing in with their own defence of universal benefits, and universal child benefit in particular.

But it is now over 24 hours since Osborne's announcement, and Ed's silence is starting to seem less strategic, and more hesitant. There are intelligent and substantive counter-arguments to be made to this cut, as Nicola Smith demonstrated yesterday on Left Foot Forward. This is a big opportunity for him to make a real statement about the kind of leader of the opposition he is going to be, and to set the tone for how Labour are going to respond to the spending review in a few weeks' time. During the summer's hustings, he spoke often about the hard work Labour need to do to get back in power -- now it's time to lead by example and start doing it.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the arts in north London on September 1, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Labour MPs force Corbyn to bring back shadow cabinet elections?

It is not up to the parliamentary party whether the contests are reintroduced. 

Soon after Jeremy Corbyn became the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, it was reported that he intended to bring back shadow cabinet elections. But as I later wrote, that's not the case. Corbyn has resolved that he will maintain the right to appoint his own team, rather than having it elected by MPs (as was the case before Ed Miliband changed the system in 2011). As he wrote in the NS: "Whoever emerges as leader on 12 September needs a shadow cabinet in place as soon as possible. I will appoint a strong, diverse shadow cabinet to hold this government to account from day one."

Now, ahead of his likely victory a week on Saturday, Corbyn is under pressure from some MPs to reverse his stance. Barry Sheerman, the former education select commitee chair, told me that he wanted a "serious discussion" within the PLP about the return of the elections. While some support their reinstatement on principled grounds, others recognise that there is a tactical advantage in Corbyn's opponents winning a mandate from MPs. His hand would be further weakened (he has the declared support of just 14 of his Commons colleagues). 

But their reinstatement is not as simple as some suggest. One senior MP told me that those demanding their return "had not read the rule book". Miliband's decision to scrap the elections was subsequently approved at party conference meaning that only this body can revive them. A simple majority of MPs is not enough. 

With Corbyn planning to have a new team in place as soon as possible after his election, there is little prospect of him proposing such upheaval at this point. Meanwhile, Chuka Umunna has attracted much attention by refusing to rule out joining the left-winger's shadow cabinet if he changes his stances on nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation (a lengthy list). Umunna is unlikely to remain on the frontbench but having previously pledged not to serve, he now recognises that there is value in being seen to at least engage with Corbyn. Were he to simply adopt a stance of aggression, he would risk being blamed if the backbencher failed. It is one example of how the party's modernisers recognise they need to play a smarter game. I explore this subject further in my column in tomorrow's NS

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.