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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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

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

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