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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder