David Cameron with Ed Miliband before the state opening of Parliament in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The sound of Labour silence: Miliband can’t rely on the Tories to keep hurting Cameron for him

Labour MPs fear going into battle without defences against predictable Tory onslaughts.

A lot of politics involves trying to force your opponent to talk about one thing when he or she would much rather be talking about something else. For months now Labour has been haranguing the government on depressed living standards because, in Ed Miliband’s view, that is the feature of Britain’s economy that David Cameron would most gladly ignore.

The Tories tried skirmishing on this front, without success. The Chancellor backed a minimum wage hike; the Prime Minister promised to make energy companies behave better. They just looked as if they were dancing to Miliband’s tune. Now Downing Street has accepted that the cost of living is Labour’s terrain and avoids giving battle there. Inside No 10, soaring gas bills are filed alongside the NHS as an issue to be wished away, preferably in silence.

As is customary, the Chancellor used the Budget to change the subject. Less in keeping with tradition, the leader of the opposition refused to notice, jeering at Osborne for not talking about things Labour wanted him to talk about. It was not Miliband’s finest hour, as even his allies admit.

What really worries opposition MPs is not that their leader didn’t refer to the Chancellor’s big pension reforms in the Commons but that he and Ed Balls seemed slow to grasp that they were significant at all. “A dead rabbit” produced from Osborne’s hat, joked the shadow chancellor after the Budget debate. The rabbit was gamboling across the front pages the following morning.

The impression that Labour’s message is shrinking was reinforced by a flurry of flat-pack jibes about the Prime Minister’s Eton education and millionaire-friendly tax regime. Cameron is touchy about references to his gilded schooling but it hurts more when the injury is inflicted by his own side. Toff-bashing ties the opposition up in complaints about a Conservative past when it needs to be advertising a Labour future.

Class resentment isn’t the only area where Tories seem more adept than Labour at damaging Cameron. Conservative infighting and rebellion and luminous government incompetence have done as much to advance Miliband’s prospects of victory as his policy interventions. That is not a service on which the opposition should rely.

Meanwhile, Downing Street does its best to turn debate to topics that make the Labour leader uncomfortable – budget cuts, immigration and welfare. It would be wrong to suggest that the opposition has nothing to say in those areas. Labour has accepted the coalition’s spending limits for the next parliament, pledged incentives for employers who hire British workers and supported a cap on the benefits bill. The missing element is not policy but emotional commitment.

Miliband has made speeches on tricky topics, each crafted to neutralise some Tory accusation, without inviting charges of treason from his own side. He then seems to think the matter is settled. This hit-and-run technique has often frustrated Labour MPs. The mood is now souring into fear of going into battle without defences against predictable Tory onslaughts. “There’s so little time to go and it doesn’t feel like we’re on a total war footing,” laments a backbencher. Others are harsher still. “We have nothing interesting to say about the things that really matter to people,” warns a shadow minister.

The Conservatives will try to hammer Labour for lacking the guts to bring welfare spending under control. The opposition is divided between those who think Miliband’s job is to rehabilitate national consent for generous social security and those who wish he understood why the old system made so many voters cross.

It is possible that opinion will shift. Sympathy for people on the sharp end of austerity may yet overtake suspicion that idlers have been unfairly cashing in. Public support for the thrust of coalition policy already excludes measures that seem vindictive. Privately some Tory MPs concede that the “bedroom tax” was ill-judged and that the rush to shunt people from long-term benefits into work has led to cruel treatment of some disabled claimants. There are signs that this message is even filtering up to the Treasury. In his Budget speech, Osborne eschewed references to fecklessness and fraud, sticking instead to the language of incentives. He even remarked: “Britain should always be proud of having a welfare system that helps those most in need.”

This reflects an easing of once hostile relations between Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith. The Treasury once viewed the Work and Pensions Secretary’s ambitions for a more “compassionate” Conservative welfare agenda with derision. Now IDS’s allies say the Chancellor has been persuaded that the Tories need to sound less punitive and more redemptive. Duncan Smith’s friends attribute the change to polling by Lynton Crosby, the party’s election strategist, showing that voters know the Conservatives like cutting benefits but suspect them of having the wrong motive. A tweak to the rhetoric can’t scrub the old stain of nastiness from the Tory image but it shows that Osborne has no intention of helping his enemies by playing up to caricature.

Labour will point at hardship and hunger as proof that the Chancellor’s economic recovery is leaving millions of people behind. To embarrass the government, the opposition will continue asking questions about food banks, zero-hours contracts, low wages, housing shortages, crippling rents and inequality to which Cameron has no answers. There are many awkward facts that the Tories want to wish away. All parties have their discomfort zones and things they would rather not talk about. Labour’s problem is that, when the Conservative attacks are constant, Miliband’s silences are too long and too loud. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.