Miliband's lost welfare intervention

Everyone waited for the Labour leader to say something on welfare. He did but (for obvious reasons) no one noticed.

A colossal news event doesn’t just obliterate other items from the news agenda, it seems to cast them back in time. The arguments about welfare reform that raged last week  – aggravated by George Osborne’s decision to link the case of Mick Philpott, a convicted child killer who happens also to have received benefits, to the more general moral failings of the social security system - seem to have been pushed deeper into the past by the sheer volume of coverage of Margaret Thatcher's death.

The Labour Party was collectively outraged, denouncing the Chancellor’s intervention as callous and cynical. The Tories were generally glad of another opportunity to depict the opposition as hopelessly wedded to defending a profligate system that permits indolence up to the point of breeding depravity. Something approximating a Westminster consensus formed by the end of the week that Labour came off worse from the scrap (although no one in their right mind could have judged it an edifying combat). That is partly because Ed Miliband was away on holiday. Without an intervention from the leader the party’s response looked inevitably diminished. The announcement, in Sunday’s Observer, of a "new" approach to welfare that would recognize more the value of claimants’ past contributions through work, was treated dismissively as a reactive panic, although Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary, has been kicking around the idea for months.

While some MPs on the right of Labour, mindful of public contempt for the party’s supposed record of unchecked welfare spending, fretted squeamishly that by kicking back at the Tories they were marching into another Osborne trap. Meanwhile, many on the left were in despair that seemed unable to muster sufficient moral outrage to defend those – in work and out of it - who rely on state support just to get by and who are implicitly branded as corrupt layabouts by government rhetoric.

Miliband was convicted by all sides in absentia. So it might be expected that, on his return from holiday, the Labour leader would make a clear and explicit statement of his position on the subject. As it happens, he did. I was travelling with Miliband as he launched his party’s local election campaign yesterday. (Yes, I was there when the news of Thatcher’s death came in but you’ll have to wait a bit longer to read about that.) Campaigning was abandoned and not much, if anything, that happened in politics earlier in the day was noticed.

It is worth disinterring Miliband’s welfare comments, made to a live audience in Ipswich during an unscripted question and answer session. Naturally, what he said won’t satisfy everyone but it is a clearer statement of the official position than anything that emerged last week, a relatively substantial intervention and probably worth quoting in full. So here it is:

“The starting point is we need a welfare system that works. We are very clear about what welfare reform means. Welfare reform means that we should get the 155,000 people who have been unemployed over two years over the age of 25 back to work. Labour is the only party in this country that says we're actually going to do that. We're going to offer them jobs and say you've got a responsibly to take it.

"We think we've got to get the 77,000 young people who have been unemployed for more than a year, back to work. Labour is the only party who says we're actually going to do that by putting them back to work. Do you know what? Those numbers are going up and up under this government because of their economic failure. That's where you start.

"Secondly, you've got to make work pay. You don't make work pay but cutting taxes for millionaires and cutting tax credits at the same time so you've got to make sure that tax credits are there for people to make work pay.

"Thirdly, contribution does matter. I've said in the past that when it comes to housing, if you are working and playing a part in your community, you should get extra points. In terms of the housing list, that is the right thing to do. That is what welfare reform looks like to me.

"Here's the problem with this government, they are not just heartless they are hopeless too. Because actually their welfare reform doesn't work. They say they want to make work pay - Mr Osborne was repeating this on Tuesday . What he doesn’t admit is that his strivers tax that is coming in today - the limit to 1% of the increase in social security payments - is hitting precisely the people he says he wants to help: the people on tax credits and others.

"They’re hopeless too because their bedroom tax is not just cruel and unfair but actually is going to force people into the private sector, which will cost more. And universal credit it in chaos.

"But now we come to the wider issue. Because there are two different views you can take on this: do you try and unite your country and bring it together or do you exploit tragedies? Like the Philpott tragedy. And the right place for Mr Philpot is behind bars. But do you exploit the deaths of six children to try and make a political point about the welfare system? And at the same time say to people actually this is somehow a commentary about so many people on benefits. Of course there is a minority of people on benefits who should be working and aren’t. Labour’s the party that’s going to get them back to work. But what I’m not going to do is engage in nasty, divisive politics.

“I have got a very clear message for the British people on this: we can either succeed as a country by uniting, by using the talents of everybody, by using the talents of everybody out of work, by putting them back into work and making sure there is real responsibility. Or you can say let's divide, let’s set one group of people against another - that’s not how we won the Second World War, that’s not how we succeeded as a country after the Second World War. Now if people want that nasty divisive politics they can have it from the Conservative Party, they’re not going to get it from me. I’m a unifier, not a divider.

"That is what One Nation Conservatives used to believe. And frankly, you know what, I think One Nation Conservatives will be turning in their grave at what’s happened to today’s Conservative Party. They would be ashamed of what’s happened to this Conservative party. Because they have made a political decision, it’s not about the national interest, it’s a political decision to divide this country. Well I’m not having it. I’m not doing it. That’s not my politics."


Miliband said that "One Nation Conservatives will be turning in their grave at what’s happened to today’s Conservative Party". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.