Miliband uses new year message to counter the Tories' welfare myths

Labour leader's message challenges the stereotype of the welfare 'scrounger'.

The first big political event of the new year will be the Commons vote on the Welfare Uprating Bill, which will enshrine in law George Osborne's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent per annum for the next three years (well below the rate of inflation). Ed Miliband's new year message, which you can watch above, offers further evidence of how he intends to challenge the Conservatives' welfare myths. 

The Labour leader draws on a recent visit to a food bank to reject the stereotype of the welfare 'scrounger' presented by the Tories' recent campaign ads. He says: 

I also met some of the people using the food bank, some of them out of work and some of them in work.

The story that stuck with me the most was a man who told me his story he said: “I walked eleven miles to a job interview because I couldn’t afford the bus fare, I got the job then I walked eleven miles back," he was still looking for somewhere to live because he hadn’t got his first pay cheque and he was using the food bank.

Such a long way away from the normal stereotype you’d have about the people using food banks.

When Miliband raised the subject of food banks at the final PMQs of the year, some Conservatives accused him of painting an implausible picture of a Dickensian Britain of poverty and woe. But the Labour leader's decision to return to the subject shows that he believes the growth of food banks, which have increased six-fold in the last three years, is emblematic of all that has gone wrong with the UK economy. 

Perhaps the most striking line in Miliband's message is his assertion that "They want you to believe that we have a good government being let down by bad people. We don’t. We've got a bad government that is letting down the good people of this country." Given the propensity of some Tories (most notably the Britannia Unchained group of MPs) to blame Britain's declining economic fortunes on the indolence of its people, it's an argument that could begin to resonate. 

As the leader of a party which holds just 10 out of a possible 197 seats in the south outside of London, Miliband also repeats his declaration that one nation Labour is "a party of the private sector as well as the public sector, a party of south as well as north". But don't be surprised if you no longer hear the Labour leader refer to the "north-south divide". As today's Times (£) reports, a review of the party's performance in the south of England by former cabinet minister John Denham, who now serves as Miliband's PPS (and who recently blogged for The Staggers on Labour-Lib Dem relations), and Labour general secretary Iain McNicol has found that the phrase alienates southern voters.

Denham explains: "It used to be quite common to hear people talk about the north-south divide. If you think about that, the message is that everybody in the southern part is doing okay. If you use that language, it sounds as though you represent the northern bit. 

A classic mistake for the party for a long time was using that sort of language — and then wondering why people in the south didn’t think we were talking about them."

The phrase "one nation" appears no fewer than nine times in the five minute message. With an eye to the charge that his party's policy agenda remains ill-defined, Miliband promises "concrete" announcements in 2013 on areas "from business to education to welfare". If the Labour leader is to offer more than what David Miliband, writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, described as "defensive social democracy", he will need to fulfil that pledge in full.

Ed Miliband used the phrase "one nation" nine times in his new year message. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.