Doubts about Miliband’s commitment to welfare reform go up in flames. In a good way, they hope.

The welfare line that Miliband is going to take owes a lot to the work that Liam Byrne has been doing.

So tomorrow, Ed Miliband will say something significant about welfare. Some of the outline has been briefed in advance and some has leaked out perhaps not so strategically. Either way, we know that the Labour leader is going to say something that he hopes will make it harder for his enemies to claim, as they often do, that he doesn’t want to talk about benefits.

In fact, his friends have privately said much the same too. More than once in recent months I’ve been told by Labour MPs, including shadow cabinet ministers, that the reason the party’s line on welfare is a bit foggy is that Ed himself "hasn’t properly made up his mind what he thinks." Well, it seems that now he has. And tomorrow, we’re going to find out the result of his meditations.

There isn’t much point in me going on at length about it here, not least because, judging by standard media-management practice, there will be some little surprise that Team Ed has held back and that everyone will be talking about tomorrow afternoon. The Labour leader likes to disappear into his cave to think very hard for weeks at a time and then emerge with something shiny so that his anxious tribe that was on the verge of panicking and the media are briefly dazzled and cry, "Oooh! We underestimated him. Again." (We’ll pass quickly over the fact that this technique – the meticulously planned set-piece intervention – may owe something to Miliband’s apprenticeship at the feet of one G Brown in the Treasury.)

A final observation: by the sounds of things, the welfare line that Miliband is going to take owes a lot to the work that Liam Byrne has been doing. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Byrne is shadow work and pensions secretary. Yet a feature of Labour’s welfare debate in recent years as been the shadow secretary of state coming out with speeches, statements and interviews on the need to restore the contributory principle; on "switch-spending"; on returning to Bevan’s original vision that coupled an individual’s responsibility to work with the state’s duty to guarantee full employment – and the leader’s office going eerily quiet. Meanwhile, the left piles into Byrne as a Blairite stooge.

So isolated has Byrne looked at times that I recently asked a senior Labour source in the leader’s office to confirm that what the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said about benefits could actually be taken as a statement of current Labour party policy. "Absolutely," came the answer. "Ed thinks the same as Liam." When I then pointed out that it didn’t always come across that way, I got the answer: "Well we do have to work on getting our message across more clearly."

I put the same question to another senior shadow cabinet figure a week or so ago and was told: "Ed gets it now. He will deliver the message himself and it will be in neon and lit up like a firework." So tomorrow, it seems, is the day doubts about Miliband’s commitment to welfare reform go up in flames. In a good way, they hope.

 

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle