It can hardly be a coincidence that one of the few Labour figures to bother giving a speech on policy in the middle of Tumbleweed Time is a shadow minister who looks increasingly likely to get the chop. Liam Byrne’s speech today was partly his attempt to get a good last-minute appraisal from the media and Labour party itself before Ed Miliband embarks on his autumn reshuffle, and partly an attempt to lift the party itself out of the doldrums by talking about what Labour would really do.
While Labour clearly needs to move on from lying in wait for the government to muck up now that green shoots are poking up all over the place, Byrne suspects there is more to be gained from waiting for a few disasters on his patch. The grand theme of his speech was that Iain Duncan Smith is mucking everything up, and that only Labour can swoop in and save him. After listing at some length all the things that the Work and Pensions department is making a mess of, he made that typical Labour offer that comes when there is no hope of calling for a judge-led inquiry: cross-party talks:
‘Today I say enough is enough. Universal Credit is a good ida in principle but the implementation is a disaster. We all want this project to succeed, so today I am writing to the DWP to ask that cross-party talks begin with civil servants so that we can see exactly how bad things are and what’s needed to fix them. If Iain Duncan Smith won’t save Universal Credit, then Labour will have to prepare to clean up his mess.’
Someone at DWP is currently filing this under Offers You Must Refuse, but Byrne is mimicking the language of his colleagues by talking about cleaning up the mess of the current administration.
He also came as close as he possibly could today to confirming what James first reported in July: that Labour plans to scrap the bedroom tax if it comes to power in 2015. Byrne said: ‘It should be dropped, and dropped now.’
There is a reason for this heavy hinting. Labour has a credibility problem with voters on welfare, and used to see Byrne as the solution to that. His speech today was entitled ‘Fiscal Discipline in Social Security: DWP under Labour in 2015’ in an attempt to show that Labour does indeed have a responsible attitude to welfare. But Byrne’s own, more pressing, problem is that he lacks credibility in the Labour party, with colleagues and members fretting that he doesn’t represent the sort of authentic Labour vision for welfare that they can support. So he needs to show his party that he is worth keeping because he has the same worries about welfare policies that they do. Whether his pitch to keep hold of his job has been successful will become clear this autumn.
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