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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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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