PMQs review: a win for Miliband as Leveson looms

The Labour leader exposed the coalition's failure on the Work Programme.

Ahead of the release of the Leveson report tomorrow, today's PMQs was a nervy, ill-tempered affair. Ed Miliband devoted all six of his questions to the government's troubled Work Programme, declaring that David Cameron "got rid of a Labour programme that was working [the Future Jobs Fund] and replaced it with a Tory one that isn't". The facts were on Miliband's side. As he pointed out, just 2.3 per cent of those referred found a job for six months or more in the first year of the scheme. While the Future Jobs Fund helped 120,000 people into work, the Work Programme has helped just 3,000 people. And, since June 2011, long-term unemployment has risen by 96 per cent, a stat that Cameron, unable to refute, simply ignored.

But this wasn't quite the resounding victory that it should have been for Miliband. In a reference to yesterday's tempestuous cabinet meeting, he declared that ministers were "at each other like rats in a sack", to which Cameron artfully replied, "he worked in a government where the Prime Minister and the Chancellor couldn't even be in the same room as each other." The Labour leader's stop-start delivery (pausing to tell Tory MPs to "calm down" at one point) meant his final question lacked force. But Cameron's boilerplate response - "we're putting the country back to work, their party wrecked it" - suggested a man who had given up winning the argument.

In response to questions on Leveson (most of which came from Tory MPs concerned about press freedom), Cameron, who received a copy of the report today, emphasised the need for an "independent regulatory system in which the public can have confidence" but said nothing to suggest that he favours statutory regulation. He later added that "whatever the changes we make, we want a robust and a free press in this country". Miliband echoed Cameron's hope of reaching an all-party consensus, speaking of a "once in a generation opportunity for real change". But while Labour won't receive a copy of the report until tomorrow, Nick Clegg, like Cameron, already has one. In the event that consensus proves elusive, Clegg has approached the Speaker about the possibility of a separate Commons statement tomorrow.

Labour leader Ed Miliband said Cameron "got rid of a Labour programme that was working and replaced it with a Tory one that isn't". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia