Miliband has given Labour a welfare message it can sell

The speech successfully addressed two of the biggest grievances with the system: "the something for nothing" problem and "the nothing for something" problem.

Ed Miliband's speech on welfare was an astute political rescue operation. After David Cameron labelled Labour "the welfare party" and George Osborne laid a trap in the form of a new limit on "annually managed expenditure" (which consists of demand-led items such as social security), Miliband branded Labour "the party of work" and announced his own cap on "structural spending". Rather than attempting to reduce the benefits bill through punitive and ineffective measures such as the "bedroom tax", Labour will seek to address the long-term drivers of higher spending, such as persistent unemployment, substandard wages and housing shortages. Although pension spending won't be included in the cap, Miliband also promised to show "a willingness to adjust the retirement age". 

The speech was squarely aimed at addressing two of the public's biggest grievances with the welfare system: the "something for nothing" problem - that too many who get out don't put in - and the "nothing for something" problem - that too many who put in don't get out. In the toughest rhetoric we've heard from him on the subject, Miliband declared that he would never be indifferent to those who choose not to work. Labour, he said, had always been "against the denial of responsibility by those who could work and don’t do so." While the number who choose welfare as a way of life is far smaller than commonly thought, this was an important signal that Miliband shares the public's conception of fairness. The policy of a compulsory jobs guarantee for all adults unemployed for more than two years and all young people unemployed for more than a year (with the potential for the thresholds to be reduced) means Labour can no longer be accused of allowing millions to languish on benefits. 

While the Tories have focused on tackling those perceived to abuse the system, Miliband turned his attention to those the system has failed. After much talk of reaffirming the contributory principle, he finally offered some detail, proposing a higher rate of JobSeeker's Allowance for those who have paid in for decades and suddenly find themselves out of work As Miliband said, "£72 is in no sense a proper recognition of how much somebody who has worked for many decades has paid into the system. As so many people have told me: 'I have worked all my life, I have never had a day on benefits, and no real help is there when I needed it.'” In order to avoid creating new costs, the change would be paid for by increasing the length of work required to qualify for contributory JSA from two years to five. Miliband also promised to offer extra help to return to employment for older workers who lose their jobs and to look at rewarding other forms of contribution such as parents looking after young children and children looking after their elderly parents.

Some Tories have attempted to portray Labour as divided on welfare but any speech that unites Tom Harris and Len McCluskey in praise must qualify as a success. Challenging questions for Labour remain: what happens if the new cap is breached? How much money will the measures proposed by Miliband really save? What level would a regional benefit cap be set at? How many, if any, of the coalition's cuts would Labour reverse? But today, the party is in a far stronger position on welfare than before. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.