Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband's new leadership pitch is a gamble worth taking

By framing himself as a man of "principle", not one for photo-ops, the Labour leader is seeking to ensure the election is fought on his terms. 

For months, Ed Miliband has been under ferocious personal attack from the media. Mocked for his appearance in photos and derided as "weird", he has often struggled to be heard above the gale of ridicule. For the Tories, it is Miliband's "weakness" (reflected in his poor personal ratings), above all else, that gives them hope they can achieve victory next May. 

But in his speech today, regarded by Labour strategists as one of the most important he has ever made, Miliband hit the reset button. In a partial admission of defeat, he conceded that David Cameron was better at photo opportunities than him - "I haven't matched him on that" - and that "it's not where my talents lie" (adding, in a nice touch of self-deprecation, "as you may have noticed").

"David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of an image-based politics," he said. "He made his name as leader of the opposition for some fantastic photos, like hanging out with huskies in the Arctic Circle. 

"Even my biggest supporters would say I haven't matched him on that. It is not what I care most about. And it's not where my talents lie - as you may have noticed."

He even went as far as to declare: "If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me". Perhaps no leader of the opposition has ever been so frank. That Miliband and his team decided this speech was necessary is a tacit acknowledgment of how poor his position is on many fronts. But in an attempt to turn this apparent weakness into a strength, he urged voters to raise their sights above the level of photo opportunities and publicity stunts, presenting himself as a man with "big ideas", "a sense of principle" and "decency and empathy". With these words, Miliband is seeking to construct an alternative test of leadership to that set by his foes. One shadow cabinet minister described it to me as a "jiu-jitsu move", turning Cameron's apparent strength (his image) against him. 

Miliband's new strategy is not without risk. Some voters may find his tone patronising - "we'll judge you on our terms, not yours" - while others may dismiss it as a desperate bid for sympathy. But it is undoubtedly a gamble worth taking (if one that some in Labour believe should have been taken adopted earlier). One of the few measures on which Miliband has consistently outpolled Cameron is "understanding people's lives", his speech was an attempt to make this, rather than more trivial considerations, the ultimate test for a would-be prime minister.

After years of rising alienation with politics, Miliband's wager is that the country is ready for a more principled and serious figure than Cameron (a man of whom even Conservatives ask "what does he actually believe?"). Gordon Brown made a similar appeal in the final leaders' TV debate, declaring "If it is all about style and PR, count me out. If it’s about the big decisions, if it’s about judgement, it’s about delivering a better future for this country, I’m your man." It did him little good, but by that stage perhaps nothing could.

Ahead of next May, Miliband's decision to admit to his weaknesses in advance is a shrewd insurance policy. As the general election draws closer, the press and the Tories will subject to him ever harsher scrutiny and seize every opportunity to make him look foolish. With this speech, Miliband has declared in advance: "I'm not playing that game". 

Instead, he said: "The leadership you need and the leadership you this country need is one that has big ideas to change things, with the sense of principle needed to change things, with the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard, and with the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all backgrounds, all walks of life. For me, those qualities are the gold standard for what a modern leader should offer."

He added, to avoid any hostages to fortune, "I will sometimes fall short of that gold standard." Having set himself up as a figure of principle, Miliband will need to ensure that he does so as rarely as possible. As another Labour leader once put it, he will need to be "whiter than white" if decency is truly to triumph.

Having framed the election as a battle of ideas, he will also need to ensure that he has the best ones. The Tories' riposte to this speech will be that the problem isn't that Miliband is bad at photos ("although he is"), but that he has the wrong policies, that he'd "crash" the economy again. It is that charge that Miliband will now need to definitively rebut in the nine months that remain. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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No, the Brexit vote wasn't just about immigration

The data shows that most voters want a fairer society. Labour must fight for this in the Brexit negotiations. 

The result of the UK referendum to leave the European Union has shaken the political establishment to its core. As I have argued since then, it should be a wakeup call to all political parties.

Some have also argued that the referendum result is having international repercussions, with the election of Donald Trump to the White House cited as "Brexit Plus Plus". With the imminent election in France, and Germany’s later this year, responsible analysts are trying to understand why people voted the way they did and what this means. Too often, there are knee jerk explanations without any evidentiary justification to back them up. 

Analysis of who voted to leave shows the majority of people who voted to leave live in the South of England, and 59 per cent were from the middle classes (A, B, C1). Only 21 per cent of people in the lowest income groups voted to leave.

Analysis of why people voted as they did is more complex. This includes an increase in Euroscepticism particularly from older, middle class voters; concerns about globalisation and the impact on jobs; inequalities and being left behind; and new voters who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election, for whom immigration was a concern. When this analysis is overlaid on analysis of that election, some themes emerge. The attitudes and values of the majority of the British public are firmly rooted in the desire for a fairer society, based on principles of equality and social justice. Although immigration played a part in the election and referendum results, perceived competence, being "left behind" and disillusionment with the direction of change were the key drivers.

Whether people voted to remain or leave, they did so because they believed that they and their families would be better off, and the majority who voted believed they would be better off if we leave the EU. Labour accepts and respects this. We have said that we will vote for Article 50, but we intend to hold this Tory government to account to ensure we get the best possible deal for the country.

In his speech last week, Jeremy Corbyn set out the issues that Labour will hold the government to account on. We have been absolutely clear that we want tariff-free access to the single market, to ensure that Britain continues to trade openly with our European neighbours, and to protect the cost of living for families struggling to get by. Getting the best deal for the UK means that we must continue to have a strong relationship with our EU neighbours.

Under my work and pensions portfolio, for example, we know that 40 per cent of pension funds are invested outside of the UK. If we want to guarantee a dignified and secure retirement for our pensioners, we must ensure that savers can get the best returns for the investments they make.

We also know that many of the protections that have until now been offered by the European Union must continue to be guaranteed when we leave. Provisions that secure the rights of disabled people, or that protect worker’s rights are an essential part of British society, enhanced by the EU. These cannot be torn up by the Tories.

Defending these rights is also at the heart of our approach to immigration. The dire anti-migrant rhetoric from some parts of the media and certain politicians, is reprehensible. I reject this scapegoating, which has fear and blame at its heart, because it is not true. Blaming migrants for nearly seven wasted years of Tory austerity when they are net contributors of over £2bn a year to the economy is perverse.

Of course we need to respond when public services are coming under pressure from local population increases. That’s why Labour wants to reinstate the Migration Impact Fund that the Tories abolished. We also need to ensure new members of communities get to know their new neighbours and what’s expected of them.

We believe that migrants’ broader contribution to British society has too often been obscured by the actions of unscrupulous employers, who have exploited new arrivals at the expense of local labour. A vast network of recruitment and employment agencies has developed in this country. It is worth hundreds of billions of pounds. Last year over 1.3m people were employed in the UK by these agencies. In 2007, 1 in 7 of these people came from the EU. We should ask how many are recruited directly from the EU now, and offered precarious work on very low wages whilst undercutting local labour. Labour will put an end to this practice, in order to protect both those who come here to work and those that grew up here.

Importantly, however, we cannot let our exit from the EU leave us with skill shortages in our economy. Our current workforce planning is woeful, particularly for the long-term. We need to reduce our need for migrant labour by ensuring our young, and our not so young, are trained for the jobs of the future, from carers to coders. Again, the Conservatives have undermined people’s chances of getting on by cutting college funding and the adult skills budget.

Unlike the government, Labour will not shirk from our responsibilities to the nation. Our plans for Brexit will respect the referendum result, whilst holding the Government to account and delivering a better future for all our people, not just the privileged few.

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.