Osborne: Labour is being "opportunistic" just like Hague's Tories

The Chancellor says that Labour's "unprincipled" behaviour over the EU budget was like that of the Tories under William Hague.

After David Cameron suffered his first major Commons defeat over the EU budget last night, it was the submarine Chancellor who rose to hold the line on the Today programme this morning. George Osborne attempted to reassure Tory MPs by stating that he, like Cameron, wanted to see "a cut in the EU budget" and that the government was only at "the beginning of negotiations".

Unlike Nick Clegg, who will say in a speech later today that there is "absolutely no hope" of achieving a real-terms cut in the budget, Osborne refused to rule out the possibility of success (although he, like Clegg, knows that there is no chance of such an agreement). "Let's see what we bring home if we think there's a good deal," he said. He emphasised that Cameron's pledge to veto any above-inflation rise in the budget was a "tougher position" than any previous prime minister had adopted.

The most intriguing part of the interview came when Osborne was asked about Labour's decision to vote with the Tory rebels in favour of a real-terms cut. Rather than comparing the party's behaviour to that of John Smith over the Maastricht Treaty (as presenter Justin Webb invited him to do), Osborne said Labour's "opportunistic position" (the party supported an above-inflation increase in the EU budget in 2005) was reminiscent of the approach adopted by the Tories during the "early part" of the party's "period in opposition".

The Conservative leader at that time was, of course, one William Hague. One wonders how the Foreign Secretary feels about Osborne dismissing his leadership as "unprincipled". But it was an ingenious line of attack because it allowed the Chancellor to argue that Labour, like Hague's Tories, was not a credible "alternative government". The problem for the Conservatives, however, is that voters are much more likely to notice Cameron's refusal to call for a cut in the EU budget (most will view an inflation-linked "freeze" as a "rise") than they are Labour's dubious politicking.

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.