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.

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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