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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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