Miliband has given Labour a welfare message it can sell

The speech successfully addressed two of the biggest grievances with the system: "the something for nothing" problem and "the nothing for something" problem.

Ed Miliband's speech on welfare was an astute political rescue operation. After David Cameron labelled Labour "the welfare party" and George Osborne laid a trap in the form of a new limit on "annually managed expenditure" (which consists of demand-led items such as social security), Miliband branded Labour "the party of work" and announced his own cap on "structural spending". Rather than attempting to reduce the benefits bill through punitive and ineffective measures such as the "bedroom tax", Labour will seek to address the long-term drivers of higher spending, such as persistent unemployment, substandard wages and housing shortages. Although pension spending won't be included in the cap, Miliband also promised to show "a willingness to adjust the retirement age". 

The speech was squarely aimed at addressing two of the public's biggest grievances with the welfare system: the "something for nothing" problem - that too many who get out don't put in - and the "nothing for something" problem - that too many who put in don't get out. In the toughest rhetoric we've heard from him on the subject, Miliband declared that he would never be indifferent to those who choose not to work. Labour, he said, had always been "against the denial of responsibility by those who could work and don’t do so." While the number who choose welfare as a way of life is far smaller than commonly thought, this was an important signal that Miliband shares the public's conception of fairness. The policy of a compulsory jobs guarantee for all adults unemployed for more than two years and all young people unemployed for more than a year (with the potential for the thresholds to be reduced) means Labour can no longer be accused of allowing millions to languish on benefits. 

While the Tories have focused on tackling those perceived to abuse the system, Miliband turned his attention to those the system has failed. After much talk of reaffirming the contributory principle, he finally offered some detail, proposing a higher rate of JobSeeker's Allowance for those who have paid in for decades and suddenly find themselves out of work As Miliband said, "£72 is in no sense a proper recognition of how much somebody who has worked for many decades has paid into the system. As so many people have told me: 'I have worked all my life, I have never had a day on benefits, and no real help is there when I needed it.'” In order to avoid creating new costs, the change would be paid for by increasing the length of work required to qualify for contributory JSA from two years to five. Miliband also promised to offer extra help to return to employment for older workers who lose their jobs and to look at rewarding other forms of contribution such as parents looking after young children and children looking after their elderly parents.

Some Tories have attempted to portray Labour as divided on welfare but any speech that unites Tom Harris and Len McCluskey in praise must qualify as a success. Challenging questions for Labour remain: what happens if the new cap is breached? How much money will the measures proposed by Miliband really save? What level would a regional benefit cap be set at? How many, if any, of the coalition's cuts would Labour reverse? But today, the party is in a far stronger position on welfare than before. 

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.