The good thing for Labour about Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday was that he didn’t talk about the deficit, or welfare or other thorny issues which make certain sections of the party very grumpy indeed. The Labour leader made only fleeting references to cuts to public services, too. So there was little to disagree on. It is when he comes to tackle issues such as these that Miliband will see his party mood sour considerably from its cheery response yesterday.
The problem is that on these issues, the party is still struggling to work out how far it should go to meet voters’ demands without betraying what it sees as its core values. Liam Byrne is a member of the shadow cabinet who is well-attuned to what polling shows about attitudes towards welfare, but his pronouncements have a tendency to dismay his own activists. He performed an awkward dance on the benefits cap, which meant he was both ridiculed by Cameron for eventually opposing the section of the legislation, and criticised by members of his own party for failing to oppose it sooner.
I’ve just spoken to Labour MP Austin Mitchell who is furious that Byrne continues to be ‘too cautious’ on welfare cuts. ‘It’s the job of the opposition to oppose, not make the case for Tory cuts. I think we are being far too cautious,’ he said. He condemned Byrne’s concession that Labour may end universal eligibility for benefits such as the winter fuel payment, saying that this would be ‘difficult’ for Labour.
‘People will come back to us because the economy has failed, not because we are considering ending universal benefits or talking about public sector reform.’
A far more toxic row is over public services and public sector pay. The battle cry from the unions to drive out the Blairite ‘cuckoos‘ from Labour’s nest came at the start of the party’s conference, but the putsch hasn’t really happened yet. When the Labour leadership reaches the point where it must articulate its position on pay and benefits in detail, the union chiefs will go into overdrive: remember that they still believe Ed Miliband owes them something for his union-backed leadership victory in 2010.
Labour MPs are currently rightly chuffed at how remarkably united their party is given it only recently left government. One remarked to me recently that the Conservatives were doing them an enormous favour by tearing each other apart on Europe, Lords reform and David Cameron’s leadership in general as the rows kept Labour plodding along outside the media spotlight. But it’s easy to be united when your party is swerving around awkward policy details, and it’s easy to be united when your leader has delivered a very impressive big picture speech. The far more telling test of Miliband’s leadership will be whether he can steer his party towards policies voters are looking for and make difficult spending decisions while maintaining unity.