Ed Miliband delivers his speech at the Labour conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The by-elections show Labour can be confident of election victory

Our hard-fought victory in Heywood & Middleton stands in stark contrast to the Tories' collapse in Clacton. 

I agree with Grant Shapps: last week's by-elections put Ed Miliband one step closer to No 10. If you read some of the media coverage of the by-elections, you might have been forgiven for thinking that Labour had been beaten in Heywood & Middleton and that the Tories had won in Clacton.

Let's be clear: David Cameron didn't just lose in Clacton - he suffered a humiliating defeat. The Tories fell apart quicker than a Ukip policy announcement. And it wasn't for lack of trying. At least 10 members of the Cabinet went campaigning in Clacton. Just a week after David Cameron confidently predicted "we are taking this election very seriously - we can win this", he got his backside kicked. He lost with the Tories’ biggest drop in share of the vote in any by-election in two decades.

Just as importantly, he lost after he'd played his biggest anti-Ukip cards: his EU referendum pledge; the promise to scrap the Human Rights Act; the unfunded tax cuts (from a man who once said "you can’t talk about tax reduction unless you can show how it is paid for, the public aren’t stupid"); the squeeze on working age benefits for three million working people, whilst keeping his donors happy with his tax cut for millionaires.

For about 48 hours, the ludicrously fawning Tory-supporting media were talking excitedly about Cameron's post-conference polling surge. They've stopped now. The Tories losing Clacton would be like Labour losing a seat like Islwyn, North Durham or Leigh.

Clacton was a political earthquake. The Tory defeat to Ukip in Clacton follows defeats to Labour in the local elections in May in the battleground seats that will decide the general election next year: a list that includes places like Amber Valley, Croydon, Carlisle, Weaver Vale, Lincoln and Ipswich. Also on that list is Crawley, where on Thursday, in an important council by-election which was perhaps overshadowed by events elsewhere, Labour won back a seat from a Conservative councillor who had defected to Ukip.

And contrary to the media myth of equivalent pain for the main parties at the hands of Ukip last Thursday, Labour's result in Heywood & Middleton is actually in contrast with the Tories' result in Clacton. In both seats there was a strong Ukip challenge. But in Clacton, the Tory vote collapsed. In Heywood & Middleton, the Labour vote held firm – in fact, it increased slightly. Ukip increased its vote, but largely at the expense of the Tories and Lib Dems, who went from 50 per cent of the vote between them in 2010 to just 17 per cent between them now.

Our victory has followed a concerted effort by Labour to take Ukip and expose them for what they are: more Tory than the Tories. Like their plans to privatise the NHS, abolish workers' rights, increase bankers' bonuses, cut taxes for millionaires. Their top people are overwhelmingly ex-Tory, from their ex-Tory leader, deputy leader and treasurer; to their two ex-Tory MP defectors; to their Heywood & Middleton candidate who admitted during the campaign that he'd personally voted Tory for many years. And their money comes from ex-Tory donors – in the last quarter almost 90 per cent of their funding came from people who used to bankroll the Conservative Party.

We took this message to the people of Heywood & Middleton, with hard-hitting campaign materials showing the Ukip threat, as well as keeping our focus on saving the NHS and standing up for working people.  The result was closer than we would have liked, but the fact is the Labour vote held firm. In football terms, Heywood and Middleton wasn't pretty but we did take all three points. And teams that win the league sometimes have to scrap for a win.

We know that when it comes to taking Ukip on in Labour areas, we have continued work to do. We have the right arguments and many of the right campaigning materials. But we now need to have the confidence to go out there and take the fight to Ukip wherever they pose a threat.

But the Tory collapse at Ukip's expense tells you something else: David Cameron's party is falling back in the areas where they need to hold firm and then make progress. Before the last election, David Cameron said: "If we can't win in the north west, we can't carry the country". He didn't win in the north west. He fell back badly. Every Tory MP in a marginal constituency in the north west – and there are plenty – will have looked at the result in Heywood & Middleton and shuddered.

So don't believe everything you read from the Conservative-supporting commentariat (or some of the doom-and-gloomers on our own side). Ed Miliband is the eternal warrior against complacency, but we equally we should have confidence. For once, let's all agree with Grant Shapps when he said that the by-election results "put Ed Miliband one step nearer to No 10". For the sake of the country, let's keep working together to make sure he's right.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and the former Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.