Liam Byrne fights for his job with crowd-pleasing speech

After months of rumours that he's set for the chop, the shadow work and pensions secretary threw blow after blow at the Tories.

Liam Byrne is not going down without a fight. After months of rumours that he's set for the chop in the forthcoming reshuffle, the shadow work and pensions secretary delivered an unusually fiery speech that rivalled Len McCluskey's on the decibel meter.

Byrne, one of "the Blairites" that McCluskey suggested in his interview with me should be ignored or sacked, threw numerous crowd-pleasing blows at the Tories. He declared that "young people fighting for work in East Birmingham have got a damn sight more grit than you need to get through Eton College", assailed Michael Gove for "blaming the poor for the temerity to turn up at a food bank" ("he should be ashamed") and remarked of Iain Duncan Smith: "They say to err is human. But if you want someone to really screw it up you send for Iain Duncan Smith. And Conference that's why we need to fire him."

After Ed Miliband's announcement on the bedroom tax on Friday, Byrne was able to proudly declare that Labour would repeal the measure, a pledge that he had long pushed for against a sceptical Ed Balls. Again seeking to win over those on the Labour left for whom he has become something of a hate figure, he said: "And I say to David Cameron, Atos are a disgrace, you should sack them and sack them now. And yes Conference we say the Bedroom Tax should be axed and axed now and if David Cameron won't drop this hated tax, then we will repeal it."

Whether this is enough for Byrne to stay in his post remains doubtful. The view among many in the party is that if Labour is to reach a position on welfare that both its MPs and the electorate can live with, then it is essential for Miliband to appoint a shadow work and pensions secretary who is more trusted by backbenchers. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so only a less "Blairite" figure can sell Labour's new position on welfare to a sceptical PLP. Others points out that his continued presence on the frontbench provides the Tories with repeated opportunities to remind voters of his infamous "I'm afraid there is no money" note. In the words of one MP, "it is the gift that keeps giving."

With Miliband keen to promote "the new generation", and avoid his government looking like a set of New Labour retreads, Byrne remains one of those likely to be asked to make way. Rachel Reeves, who has long been in line for a promotion, and who is one of the party's sharpest economic brains, is the most obvious candidate to replace him.

Liam Byrne delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.