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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.