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.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.