After acidly remarking that “when the Labour battle bus should be revving up, it is parked in a lay-by of introspection”, Maurice Glasman is now offering Ed Miliband advice on what is becoming an increasingly important test of his leadership: next month’s shadow cabinet reshuffle. The Labour peer, who was ennobled by Miliband in 2011, suggests in today’s Times that his party’s leader should replace shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne with contrarian backbencher Frank Field (who responded by describing it as a “good idea”).
For several reasons, it’s a trade Miliband won’t be making. As a 71-year-old former New Labour minister, Field is exactly the kind of “greybeard” that the Labour leader wants to avoid bringing back and his policy proposals (he has called for Labour to outflank the Tories by proposing a lower benefit cap) would be anathema to the Parliamentary Labour Party. Tony Blair famously appointed Field as social security minister in 1997 with an invitation to “think the unthinkable”, only for Field to resign the following year when the “unthinkable” turned out to be unacceptable. It is not a mistake that Miliband will be repeating.
But where Glasman is right is in suggesting that Byrne is unlikely to be in his brief after the reshuffle. In the words of one Labour MP, he has “badly lost the confidence of the PLP” and Miliband’s team were furious when he recently fractured the delicate welfare compromise negotiated by the leader by attacking the coalition’s benefit cap as too soft, declaring that “ministers have bodged the rules so the cap won’t affect Britain’s 4,000 largest families and it does nothing to stop people living a life on welfare.” I’m told that the intervention was unauthorised by Miliband’s office and was regarded as “deeply unhelpful”.
The view among many in the party is that if Labour is to reach a position on welfare that both its MPs and the electorate can live with, then it is essential for Miliband to appoint a shadow work and pensions secretary who is trusted by backbenchers. Just as only Nixon could go to China, so only a leftist can sell Labour’s new position on welfare to a sceptical PLP.
But should Byrne be removed the shadow cabinet, it will allow the Tories to revive their favourite charge – that it’s Len McCluskey who calls the shots in Labour. The shadow work and pensions secretary was one of the “Blairites” that the Unite general secretary famously suggested should be sacked or ignored in his interview with me earlier this year. He told me: “Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy. I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be.” Few in Labour would now dissent from that view.