Wrong sort of transparency, Mr Miliband

Most fair-minded people know that life on benefits is dire and few abuse the system

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Why did Ed Miliband give a speech with an aeroplane in the background? Everything about the speech was more interesting than the speech itself. It was described by Dan Hodges, my fellow Blairite, as an important speech that moved the Labour Party to the centre. This seemed a plausible interpretation, because it was also condemned as a surrender to cuts and the end of universalism by Compass and Red Pepper, self-appointed guardians of the flame of socialism.

Something else was going on, however, because Len McCluskey and Paul Kenny, leaders of the Unite and GMB unions (the ones that swung it for Ed), said what a fine socialist speech it was. This outbreak of Korean-style spontaneity suggests that a bit of advance work had been done. It was obviously an important speech, because the leader's office had similarly prepared the way with the Parliamentary Labour Party. One source told The Spectator that "this speech was changed in real time" – not as it was delivered, obviously, but in the days before, as soundings were taken from Labour MPs.

It may smack slightly of followership for the leader to read out a speech drafted for him by his MPs, but it is not a terrible idea to keep open lines of communication with the people who have to go out and sell the message. And the consultation with MPs, whether in real time or in some kind of fake time invented by Doctor Who, certainly had an interesting effect on the language. Instead of "welfare", which has been contaminated by punitive American attitudes, Miliband spoke about "social security". He also refuses to talk about skivers or shirkers or scroungers, which is the sort of fake courage Labour MPs admire, but there are many on benefits and tax credits who appreciate that refusal, too. What's more, most fair-minded people know that a life on benefits is miserable and that the numbers abusing the system are low.

But, first, the speech. There was nothing in it. It said that Labour would cut spending on welfare – I mean social security – by (a) getting more people into work, (b) raising wages so that they don't have to be topped up with tax credits, and (c) building more houses to cut the cost of housing benefit. Not only that, a Labour government would strengthen public support for social security by linking benefits more to contributions people make when they are in work.

In other words, once you had referred to the footnotes, nothing. Ed Balls had delivered the footnotes three days earlier, in his "iron discipline" speech, saying that Labour would not spend more than the coalition, except on capital projects. So more, better-paid jobs would be paid for from the no-money tree; and the contributory principle would be paid for by taking from those contributing for less than five years to give to those who have contributed for longer.

Still, at least Labour would build more social housing, because that comes from the capital budget, which will be let rip by Ed Balls, the iron disciple. Well, possibly. "Build more houses" is one of those policies that is so brilliant that you wonder why nobody has thought of it before. The next day came another footnote, in the form of a blog post by Hilary Benn, the party's local government spokesman, saying that it would scrap the coalition's feeble changes to planning law. The priority would be to build homes on brownfield sites, as every politician has said since about 1968.

The most interesting thing Miliband said was after the speech, when he was asked about Labour's soliciting of "tax-efficient" donations. Thus was his sanctimony exposed. Worse than insincere, it was unwise. Do Miliband and his advisers ever think through the next question that they are going to be asked? If you condemn legal tax avoidance, then do you or your donors pay more tax than they have to? If you draw a distinction between predators and producers, then who do you mean by predators? The week before last, Miliband finally had an answer to this question, a year and a half after he invited it. In a speech to Google, a company described as "evil" by another Labour MP for failing to pay more tax than is required by law, Miliband identified Montgomery Burns, who is a cartoon character, as an example of what he meant by a predator.

And if you decide that you are going to take away the winter fuel allowance from top-rate tax-paying pensioners, surely you need to be ready for the next question, which is, "Are you going to take away free TV licences?" The social security system in this country is an inconsistent mixture of universal, means-tested and a few contributory benefits, but if you are going to propose a change it is better to invent a reason for it that will get Liam Byrne, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, through a radio interview in one piece.

Still, Labour now proposes one spending cut, worth £100m a year, enough to build 1,700 subsidised houses. And Miliband's plan to limit total social security spending, even if he doesn't say at what level and how it would be enforced, at least accepts that resources are constrained.

"Vote Labour: No Longer Completely Unrealistic." Great slogan.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

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