Miliband distances himself from the Balls strategy

Labour leader says the party should have spoken “openly and clearly” about the need for cuts.

It would be easy to dismiss Ed Miliband's admission that Labour was too slow to talk "openly and clearly" about the need for cuts as another piece of detail-free rhetoric. But, with Labour's internal politics in mind, it's a highly significant intervention.

Miliband's announcement puts more clear blue water between himself and Ed Balls, who, as Paul Waugh recently noted, still longs for the shadow chancellorship. It was Balls who used the Labour leadership election to make the argument that, had the party persisted with the Brownite mantra of "investment versus cuts", it could have won a fourth term. Faced with a choice between Labour cuts and Tory cuts, Balls argues, it was no surprise that voters opted for the real thing.

But others point to polling evidence that Labour's stance on cuts cost it votes as, in the public's view, state spending breached acceptable limits. Miliband isn't planning to look again at his proposed 60:40 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises, but he is suggesting that Labour's rhetoric on cuts left it open to the charge of "deficit denial".

What makes Miliband's intervention particularly significant is the increasing uncertainty around Alan Johnson's position. After yesterday's PMQs, during which David Cameron repeatedly joked that the shadow chancellor "can't count", it is clear that the Tories view Johnson as the weak link in Labour's armoury. And, after Sky News tripped him up on the employers' rate of National Insurance, Johnson can expect every broadcaster to pull a similar trick.

In the meantime, there is growing pressure from the left for Miliband to replace Johnson with either the popular Yvette Cooper (who topped Labour's shadow cabinet poll) or Ed Balls at some point in the near future. Yet the Labour leader's latest strategic move suggests Balls may have to wait a while longer for that promotion.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.