When Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg, two “Blairite” figures, were sacked from the shadow cabinet earlier this week, there was undisguised glee on the left. After months of “Tory-lite” policy on welfare and education, it was thought that their departures heralded a new direction.
It is this hope that explains the outrage that has greeted the first interviews given by their replacements Rachel Reeves and Tristram Hunt. Reeves, the new shadow work and pensions secretary, defends Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee and tells the Observer: “Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government”. She also supports the £26,000 benefit cap provided that it is adjusted to take into account regional variations: “I think it is right that those people who are in work do not feel that those who aren’t in work are getting something that they couldn’t dream of getting.”
Hunt, the new shadow education secretary, announces in the Mail on Sunday that Labour will not close down existing free schools and that it will support its own version in the form of ‘parent-led academies’. He says: “We will keep those free schools going. We aren’t in the business of taking them down. We have to clear up this question which has dogged Labour education policy since we entered opposition and since Michael Gove began his reforms, as to what we’d do. We just want to say, ‘You are setting up these schools, we are behind you.‘”
In neither case has there been any change in policy. Reeves and Hunt’s comments are entirely consistent with the positions outlined in Byrne and Twigg’s speeches. But for the left this is precisely the problem. With the “Blairites” gone, they assumed that Miliband would be liberated to pursue his own agenda: no to free schools and no to the benefit cap. But the reality is that the ‘tough’ stances adopted by Byrne and Twigg weren’t taken in spite of Miliband but because of him. It was the Labour leader who chose to adapt Conservative thinking on welfare and education, rather than reject it. The belief that he had been taken hostage by a nefarious “Blairite” clique (frequently espoused by Len McCluskey) was merely wishful thinking by the left. If the reshuffle has finally dispelled this illusion, it is no bad thing.
But with Byrne and Twigg gone, Miliband won’t be able to rely on the myth of “Blairite” capture (as he has sometimes been accused of doing) to defend the party’s stances on welfare and education. He will need to confront the left himself.