Liam Byrne's last stand: five things we learned

The shadow work and pensions secretary took Ed Miliband's advice and referred to "social security", rather than "welfare".

Ahead of next month's shadow cabinet reshuffle, Liam Byrne's speech today was likely the last he will give as shadow work and pensions secretary. As I revealed earlier this week, the view in Labour is that Ed Miliband needs a spokesman the PLP can trust if he is to persuade it to accept his "tough but fair" approach to welfare. (Although Byrne wasn't short of praise for Miliband, describing him as a "man of courage and vision" who had done "extraordinary" things to set the agenda.) 

Unsurprisingly, then, his speech didn't contain any new policies but it was notable on several other fronts. Here are five points that stood out for me. 

1. It's called social security, not welfare

Ed Miliband has recently encouraged Labour MPs to refer to "social security", rather than "welfare", and Byrne is clearly one who got the message. While "social security" appeared 12 times in the speech, "welfare" appeared just once (in the final line: "their promised welfare revolution has collapsed"). In the Q&A that followed, Byrne succinctly explained the logic of this shift: "the words social security are important because they include the word security and because they imply a social contract". 

2. The bedroom tax: "It should be dropped, and dropped now" 

Byrne delivered one of the strongest attacks on the bedroom tax that we've heard from a Labour frontbencher, describing it as "the worst possible combination of incompetence and cruelty". He noted that "96% of those hit have nowhere to move to" (which means higher arrears and homelessness) and that it was "costing the public an extra £102.5 million to implement", concluding: "It should be dropped, and dropped now." This doesn't amount to a commitment to reverse the policy in 2015 but as I wrote last week, Labour will pledge to abolish it in 2015 and Byrne's speech revealed the grounds on which it will do so - that it costs more than it saves.

3. We support welfare cuts too

While Byrne's speech emphasised how Labour would seek to reduce social security spending by tackling unemployment (through its Compulsory Jobs Guarantee) and building more homes, it also highlighted several cuts the party supports. He reminded his audience that Labour has called for Winter Fuel Payments to be removed from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners and that it would not "prioritise" the restoration of child benefit for higher earners.

Byrne also declared his support for "tightening up the rules on child related benefits for foreign workers." He explained: "Most people who come to Britain from Europe work hard and contribute more in taxes than they use in public services or claim in benefits, but we just don’t think it is fair that someone could move to London and leave their children in Paris or Prague and claim British family benefits and send them home."

4. Universal Credit - Labour would keep it

While deriding the government's dramatic retreat on Universal Credit, which will now apply to just ten job centres when it is rolled out this October (it was originally due to apply to all new claimants of out of work benefits), Byrne attempted to be constructive by calling for cross-party talks with civil servants "so that we can see exactly how bad things are and what's needed to fix them". It's not an offer Iain Duncan Smith is likely to accept (in an unsually personal attack on the Work and Pensions Secretary he said: "Something seems to be very wrong in the mind of the man at the helm of DWP") but it is an indication that the programme would likely survive a change of government. Byrne said that Universal Credit, which will replace six of the main benefits and tax credits with a single payment, was "a good idea in principle" and that "if Iain Duncan Smith won’t save Universal Credit, then Labour will have to prepare to clean up his mess."

5. The return of "full employment"

"Full employment" might be a phrase more associated with the Keynesian golden age than with recent British politics but under Ed Miliband it has been restored as an aim of Labour policy. The party views full employment (defined by William Beveridge as an unemployment rate no higher than 3%) as the foundation of a strong economy and the best way to reduce social security spending and narrow inequality. In his speech, Byrne promised that "over the weeks and months ahead", Labour would outline "a new approach that returns our country to full employment".

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne speaks at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.