John Rentoul: Ed is making it easy to be a Tory

Labour was leaderless all summer long. Miliband seems to think that it should stay that way

Share
Related Topics

The Labour Party did quite well in the opinion polls for four months over the summer, without a leader. So perhaps we should not be surprised that Ed Miliband has decided to continue the practice. He has led the way by giving no lead, allowing party spokespeople to continue on their default setting, opposing everything the Government does from a predictable old Labour world view. Last week, it was the housing benefit cuts, which Miliband chose as his theme for Prime Minister's Questions, and on which he will force a vote in the House of Commons this week, thus putting himself and his party on the side of benefit claimants against the tax-paying majority.

Put like that, it sounds harsh and heartless to criticise Miliband's approach. Surely Labour must be on the side of the poor and the vulnerable? Of course; but there was a time when Labour argued for remedying the causes of poverty instead of simply racking up the bills of social failure. And these ideas for cutting housing benefit were not conceived in a Tea Party test tube before being transatlantically transplanted into a right-wing Conservative Party; they have been discussed by Labour ministers and Department of Work and Pensions officials and advisers for more than a decade. Labour secretaries of state started the process of reform, which has now been accelerated.

Specifically, James Purnell announced in December 2008 that he would consult on housing benefit reforms to ensure that "people on benefits do not end up getting subsidies for rents that those who work could never afford". Labour ought, therefore, to accept the principle of cutting welfare spending, carp about some of the details if it must but change the subject on to something on which it finds itself on the side of the majority of voters.

Douglas Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, was the only Labour politician to get it right. Last weekend he said he supported "in principle" Iain Duncan Smith's plan to replace all out-of-work benefits with a single "universal credit" payment. How many people noticed that compared with the number who noticed Chris Bryant, the shadow constitutional reform minister, who took the housing benefit debate to a new level with hysterical and unreasonable talk of "social cleansing"? Never mind that the concept was then hijacked by Boris Johnson, who said with brilliant ambiguity, "We will not accept a kind of 'Kosovo-style social cleansing' of London." Leave aside for a moment the fascinating positioning of Johnson versus George Osborne as next Tory leader: this is not where Labour ought to be.

It is the same with the cut to child benefit for households with a higher-rate taxpayer. There was joy unbounded in Labour ranks when a Treasury source was quoted last week as saying that the cut, planned for 2013, was "unenforceable". Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor, went on the radio to talk about incompetence, mocking the Government for having cobbled together an ill-considered policy for a headline before the Tory conference.

This is unthinking politics. It should be obvious that the policy was not dreamt up on the back of an envelope. It may not have gone to Cabinet, which afforded journalists some sport, but the options had been debated intensively in the Treasury since the election – when civil servants dusted off papers prepared for the previous government. And, yes, there are some complications: limiting a universal benefit will require extra bureaucracy – but the idea that it is "unenforceable" is just spin. Higher-rate taxpayers have to tell HMRC if they are living with someone entitled to claim child benefit; how hard is that to enforce? Once again, Labour is obsessed with the trees, unable to see that its forest is deeply unpopular with the voters.

Talk of unenforceability brings us to Miliband's speech to the CBI on Monday, in which he repeated his plan for "tax cuts for those employers who pay the living wage". Now here is a policy that really does seem to have been jotted down on the back of an envelope, requiring a huge new bureaucracy to monitor pay rates in companies, to check that they are paying a "living wage" much higher than the minimum wage. Why not, instead, just raise the minimum wage, a simple and thoroughly enforceable law that applies to everyone?

Meanwhile, David Cameron has been off to Brussels to pose as the defender of the British taxpayer. And this week Labour will be trapped on the wrong side of three issues. Tomorrow, the Commons takes the next stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. Labour has lost interest in the prospect of electoral reform that would give more power to the voters, and is working itself up into a righteous froth about the "gerrymandering" of constituency boundaries to Labour's disadvantage.

Miliband ought to tell his MPs that they will gain nothing by opposing the principle of more equal-sized constituencies (and he could add, quietly consulting Professor John Curtice, that the new boundaries will do the Tories much less good than they think). Then there is the vote on housing benefit. And, finally, Vince Cable's announcement on student finance, where the Liberal Democrats' embarrassment has covered Miliband's own. He backs a graduate tax that would not bring in additional revenue for years.

On every single issue, the Prime Minister is on the side of the voters, and Ed Miliband, when he is visible, is on the wrong side, defending the sectional interest of benefit claimants, rich parents, Labour MPs or students. David Cameron and George Osborne ought to be vulnerable. They look too pleased with themselves, too much as if they are enjoying the student politics of it all. But, on the evidence of Miliband's first five weeks, they have nothing to fear.

John Rentoul blogs at: www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable