Ed Miliband campaigns before the Rochester and Strood by-election on October 23, 2014 in Chatham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband shows his confidence on the EU

The Labour leader regards his party's commitment to membership as a political strength. 

The most significant thing about today's PMQs was Ed Miliband's choice of subject matter: EU membership. If Labour once feared its stance on the issue was a weakness, it now regards it as a strength. After being rebuked by Angela Merkel for his demand to abandon the free movement of people, it is ever harder for David Cameron to argue that he can secure the reforms he believes are necessary for Britain to remain in the EU. As a result, he is being forced to flirt with the possibility of withdrawal. 

Pressed by Miliband on whether he was prepared to campaign for an "out" vote (an option he previously ruled out), the PM filibustered. "I want Britain to stay in a reformed European Union," he said. But is it possible to reform Europe? Many Conservative MPs no longer believe it is, a divide Miliband skillfully exploited today. "There's no point giving us the 'fight them on the beaches' speech because the last time he tried that was over Jean-Claude Juncker and he lost 26 votes to 2. That's his leadership in Europe," he said, and the Tory benches were notably muted. 

In contrast to Cameron, Miliband was unambiguous: "I want to stay in the EU". As well as being buoyed by polls showing support for membership at a 23-year high, Labour regards its commitment to the EU as one of its few trump cards on business (Miliband told Cameron that business leaders would have their "heads in their hands" over his stance - and many do ). But a significant number of Labour MPs continue to fear that Cameron's charge that the party is too "chicken" to "trust the people" is one that could hurt it during the election campaign. 

With the aid of an arsenal of critical Labour quotes, Cameron held his own in the chamber. He noted that Alistair Darling ("about the only person on the Labour benches who had any economic credibility") had argued that an EU referendum was inevitable ("It's a boil that has to be lanced"), that shadow deputy leader of the House Thomas Docherty had warned Labour was in a "dreadful position" and that even John Prescott was now giving Miliband lectures on the English language (although the sight of Cameron deriding the working class northerner is unlikely to have endeared him to all). 

The other notable point from today's session was the co-ordinated Labour assault on PM over VAT. With Cameron again refusing to rule out another rise, it is clear this will be a key election attack line for the opposition. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.