Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester in 2014.
Show Hide image

Ivan Lewis: "self-indulgent" Milburn and Hutton must remember need for unity

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary says former New Labour ministers "would have been the very people lecturing others". 

There was fury across Labour this week at Alan Milburn's attack on the party's election strategy. Figures from all wings of the party regarded the content ("a pale imitation" of the 1992 campaign) and the timing of his remarks - the launch day of the party's NHS pledge - as unacceptable. One former Blairite minister told me that the former health secretary's behaviour amounted to "treachery". Others pointed to his earnings from private healthcare as evidence of a vested interest in promoting the sector. 

Now, in an interview with the New Statesman, Ivan Lewis has delivered the most prominent criticism from the shadow cabinet. Referring to Milburn and to former defence secretary John Hutton, who co-authored a critical Financial Times article, the Blairite shadow Northern Ireland secretary urged the pair to remember their own lessons on discipline. 

Alan Milburn and John Hutton were two people who delivered very impressive things for Labour in the period that they were in government. But they would have been the very people lecturing others about ill-discipline and self-indulgence at this stage in the political cycle. And that's why their interventions were unacceptable this week. 

He added:

Those interventions, that view of Labour doing things differently, if that's their opinion, fine, they've had three, four years to air those opinions. To do it on the day that Labour published its NHS pledge was inappropriate and regrettable. 

I don't think we should be personal, as some have chosen to be. As I say, these people did make a very big contribution to many of the positive things that Labour did between 1997 and 2010. Alan Milburn, for example, the lowest waiting times in the history of the NHS, we should never forget that. But they, more than anyone, would have talked about the need for discipline and for unity and been critical of those who were self-indulgent, so I hope they'll reflect on the impact of their interventions this week and make sure it doesn't happen again during the course of this campaign. 

"No justification" for keeping DUP out of TV debates

Elsewhere in the interview, Lewis criticised the broadcasters' decision to exclude the DUP from the proposed TV debates. "I can't see any objective justification for that decision," he said. "If you look at the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, Ukip, there's absolutely no justification for keeping Northern Ireland's voice out of these debates, none whatsoever."

Conservative poster of Ed Miliband and Gerry Adams was "gutter politics"

Asked whether Labour could work with the Northern Irish parties in the event of a hung parliament, Lewis said: "We're aiming for a majority, so we're not going to speculate about coalitions."

He went on to attack the "entirely untrue" story that Labour had encouraged Sinn Fein MPs to take their seats after the election, adding that the Conservatives' subsequent poster of Ed Miliband with Gerry Adams was "the kind of gutter politics that I think we need to expect day in, day out, week in, week out in this election. Totally not based on one fact, totally untrue."

"Tory arrogance" over Unionist parties

Lewis also criticised the "arrogance" that led the Conservatives to believe that Northern Ireland's Unionist parties would automatically favour them.

"In terms of working, I work with all of the parties in Northern Ireland, we have a relationship of equal respect with all of them. I think there is an arrogance among the Tories, who believe that Unionists should support them. They don't seem to realise, for instance, that many of the voters of the Democratic Unionist Party are being hammered in terms of Tory social policy. 1930s-level cuts would be awful in the UK generally, but in terms of a society that's emerging from conflict it would have an even worse effect. In a situation, frankly, where if you look at youth unemployment, if you look at long-term unemployment, Northern Ireland is still lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom. 

"So I think the Tory arrogance that assumes that they have this close relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party ... I think we have a good relationship with all the parties and it's important in Northern Ireland that you seek to be an honest broker, you seek to be trusted equally by all the parties and you're not seen to be taking sides."

The full interview with Ivan Lewis will appear next week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle