Where Miliband leads, Cameron follows

Cameron echoes Miliband and links the riots to the banking crash, expenses and phone hacking.

Not everyone liked Ed Miliband's attempt to link the riots to the banking crash, the expenses scandal and the phone-hacking scandal. Boris Johnson, for instance, quipped in his Telegraph column today: "I simply cannot agree that Gerald Kaufman's expense-claim for a Bang and Olufsen television has somehow triggered or legitimated the torching of property in outer London."

But it's worth noting that both David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have since followed Miliband and made the connection. Appearing on the Today programme this morning, Duncan Smith remarked:

We all have to put our hands in the air, those of us in leadership positions, and recognise in the last 15 or 20 years what has happened to us is that many of us have just decided that life is about what you take out of it, not what you put in. You know, stiffing somebody on a debt in the City, or raiding someone's telephone for messages, claiming expenses that you should not have claimed - these are issues that all of us have to recognise we have to put our own house in order at the same time, and try and change that.

While Cameron used the closing passage of his speech (read the full transcript here) to make a similar point:

Moral decline and bad behaviour is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society. In the banking crisis, with MPs' expenses, in the phone hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility and entitlement. The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society.

Both were echoing Miliband, who argued on the Today programme last Friday:

It is about irresponsibility wherever we find it in our society. We've seen in the past few years: MPs' expenses, what happened in the banks, what happened with phone hacking, what do those things share in common ... it's a lack of a sense of right and wrong, and a "me first" mentality.

As both parties fight to define the political reaction to the riots, the Labour leader can count that as a small victory. The challenge for the left is to now address the right's main explanation for the riots: family breakdown. Miliband made a good start in his speech this morning (read the full transcript here) when he argued that such a narrative was too simple. As he noted, "[T]here are single parents who do a brilliant job and two-parent families who do a terrible job." He added: "Some people say it's all about the feckless at the bottom, but there are rich families unable to control their kids and poor families who do it very well."

Cameron spoke today of a "family test" that would be applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families and undermines commitment, he said, "then we shouldn't do it." But Cameron will struggle to make this argument while simultaneously rolling back state support for families. An unusual number of benefit cuts - the abolition of baby bonds, the three-year freeze in child benefit, the abolition of the health in maternity grant, the withdrawal of child tax credits from higher earners - hit families hardest. By contrast, benefits for the elderly - free bus passes, free TV licences, the winter fuel allowance - have been left entirely untouched. In addition, as I exclusively revealed in the NS last month, Cameron has broken his promise to protect Sure Start and 20 centres have already closed. So long as the PM's rhetoric is unsupported by his policies, this will prove fertile territory for Miliband.

Update: Cameron has now acceded to Miliband's demand for a commission of inquiry.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.