Labour stances on welfare and free schools prove it wasn't "the Blairites" holding Miliband hostage

The left wrongly assumed that the replacement of Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg would mean a change in policy.

When Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg, two "Blairite" figures, were sacked from the shadow cabinet earlier this week, there was undisguised glee on the left. After months of "Tory-lite" policy on welfare and education, it was thought that their departures heralded a new direction.

It is this hope that explains the outrage that has greeted the first interviews given by their replacements Rachel Reeves and Tristram Hunt. Reeves, the new shadow work and pensions secretary, defends Labour's compulsory jobs guarantee and tells the Observer: "Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government". She also supports the £26,000 benefit cap provided that it is adjusted to take into account regional variations: "I think it is right that those people who are in work do not feel that those who aren't in work are getting something that they couldn't dream of getting."

Hunt, the new shadow education secretary, announces in the Mail on Sunday that Labour will not close down existing free schools and that it will support its own version in the form of 'parent-led academies'. He says: "We will keep those free schools going. We aren’t in the business of taking them down. We have to clear up this question which has dogged Labour education policy since we entered opposition and since Michael Gove began his reforms, as to what we’d do. We just want to say, 'You are setting up these schools, we are behind you.'"

In neither case has there been any change in policy. Reeves and Hunt's comments are entirely consistent with the positions outlined in Byrne and Twigg's speeches. But for the left this is precisely the problem. With the "Blairites" gone, they assumed that Miliband would be liberated to pursue his own agenda: no to free schools and no to the benefit cap. But the reality is that the 'tough' stances adopted by Byrne and Twigg weren't taken in spite of Miliband but because of him. It was the Labour leader who chose to adapt Conservative thinking on welfare and education, rather than reject it. The belief that he had been taken hostage by a  nefarious "Blairite" clique (frequently espoused by Len McCluskey) was merely wishful thinking by the left. If the reshuffle has finally dispelled this illusion, it is no bad thing.

But with Byrne and Twigg gone, Miliband won't be able to rely on the myth of "Blairite" capture (as he has sometimes been accused of doing) to defend the party's stances on welfare and education. He will need to confront the left himself.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.