Wednesday 13 October 2010

Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Questions

It's not often I blog about the weekly ritual of Prime Minister's Questions. Most of the time there seems very little point. This ritual, which gives an appearance of accountability, seldom sheds lights on the government's actions - especially when the PM is a slippery customer deft in the art of answering everything but the question. And don't even get me started on friendly "don't you think the government are the best thing since sliced bread"-style queries. It's small wonder the public at best don't care or, at worst, find the whole spectacle alienating. It really puts the endless commentary trying to apportion points to the PM or the Leader of the Opposition into perspective.

But because today's questions saw Ed Miliband's debut at the despatch box, there will be a bit more interest than usual. As a new leader uneasy with the manner of his election and a whole host of Big Issues before Parliament, his performance had to satisfy the party faithful and those MPs eager to seize on any pretext to wield the knife. For once the points game
did matter.

And how was it for Ed? Presentationally he did well. His measured questioning and passive-aggressive sparring with Dave may come across well. Ed stuck to the issue and stuck Dave with a barb where appropriate, whereas the PM came across as an Old Boy braggart desperate to win points through colourful insults. Those who tuned in might possibly see Ed's performance as a step away from Punch and Judy.

Ed Miliband's choice of issue, however, spoke volumes about political pose he wants to be seen striking. On the benefit cap and more medical tests for disability living allowance, Ed promised to work with Dave on supporting the coalition's proposals. But it was on the scrapping of universal child benefit and the well-publicised anomalies the proposed changes will throw up that Ed chose to attack the government. While any socialist worth their salt should defend universal benefits, Ed's angle focused on their "unfairness" rather than the correctness of the principle.

True, the government deserve condemnation on this matter, but given Ed's trajectory since winning the leadership I'm left wondering. Did he go for this (even though the Browne report is juicier) out of genuine concern, or because it's an issue championed by the self-proclaimed daily papers of Middle England?

It is right for Labour to try and win over relatively affluent voters in swing seats. But that Ed chose to do so on his first outing while the concerns of the vast majority effected by the cuts go unvoiced tells us who he wants to be seen championing. If this is the shape of Labour strategy to come, we might as well have voted in his brother.


Lallands Peat Worrier said...

Having my eye mostly north of the border these days, I too am no regular watcher of PMQs but happened to catch Miliband's first splash this week.

It is, as ever, the event is a salutary reminder of just how ghastly many of the Tory backbenchers are. Glib, snide, vacuous, bumptious roisterers - it is all too easy for the Tories to look awfully smug and gleefully condescending during these sessions. That being so, for Miliband to foster a patient persona making a serious point is probably a good thing. Mocking laughter - however parliamentary it might feel if you are a Tory in full throat - looks deeply unattractive.

I particularly agree with your second point Phil - on the nuances, Milibandy's sally is problematic as is what it might imply about the Labour party's future tack on these questions. I'm particularly sad to see how meekly he seems to be conceding the logic on disability benefits.

Of Burke, Thomas Paine once wrote that "He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird." That phrase comes immediately to mind on the "fairness" objections to child benefit changes. Certainly, I can see the reasoning behind the objections. They're common currency now. They have a point - the criticism is fair - but smacks of being distracted by a stray feather.

john from biddulph said...

What Ed should be proposing, is bringing in the 50% tax at £100,000 and raising an extra £2.3bn like he said in his leadership campaign.
I am getting frustrated that the Labour leadership is not presenting a alternative economic stratergy.

asquith said...

It isn't just socialists who support universal benefits, either. I condemned the last government's extension of means testing, now that we have a government more to my liking (you're presumably not surprised by that statement) I will condemn the coalition for this.

I see the reasons they might have done it for. I suspect one of them might be shafting the core vote Blair-style because they have no one else to support & it makes floating voters/apolitical think they are being even-handed. I attribute it more to some kind of weird tactical thinking than to a belief it will help matters.

I probably would have fewer benefits paid out than you but I wouldn't means test the vast majority of them (the only exception I can think of is support for students from modest homes) & I have always thought DLA, if it weren't for the issues around whether the right people get it (I actually think there are more deserving caes missing out than there are fraudsters), would be the ideal benefit because it isn't means tested & doesn't discourage work. Contrast this with the lethal forest of dos & don'ts around child support other than CB, or the assorted benefits to oldsters.

A lot of people, including some proper right-wing people, would condemn what the coalition have done. The actual idea of a basic income, I believe, began life on the far left & amongst greens but it was picked up on quite widely.

I am dismayed at how much public support this has ended up getting. But on the blogs there are people who however reluctantly will give it to MiliE on this issue.

Dominic Lawson was talking about it the other day, marred in my view by his support for the policy but a lot of what he said rang true. Unfortunately I can't be arsed to look for the link at this point in time.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised he didn't go with the Browne Review. I think you might be on to something about chasing after Middle England. Those same papers generally are fans of making students pay for the privilege of university.

Anonymous said...

Top up fees is something it's too easy for the Tories to fight back on. They can legitimately say that at least they're not breaking an election promise (bonus sideswipe at the Lib Dems), and they can say that they're just extending the principle introduced by Labour. There are enough figures in the Browne Report for Cameron to fill the time responding and making himself appear fair that it's probably not worth EM trying it.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is Hitler had his Jews the Tories and Labour have the disabled, we have been invading countries for a while now, all we need do now is make the disabled wear a nice badge to show they are disabled, and invade a nice friendly country.

Unknown said...

Phil, the purpose of leading on child benefit cuts for higher earners was pretty obvious - it was pouring salt on Cameron's self-inflicted wound. Tactically, it served the purpose of showing Red Ed to be opposing what are in effect stealth taxes.

I expect that tuition fees will face questions next week, especially given the growing unease amongst Lib-Dems who pledged to vote against a rise.

In terms of strategy, that the leader would focus on cuts that affect voters the party needs to win shouldn't surprise us.

uni-talian said...

You know it's not about what he says, but what he does - of course he will position himself to the right because he wants to reassure those voters put off by the "Red Ed" tag, and he will presumably keep on doing so for the next five years because at the end of the day he wants to be re-elected.

Look how touchy-feely the Tories were pre-election and look at what they are actually doing now. The Tories turned received wisdom on its head - speaking left while acting right in a bid to make it to the centre, while it is broadly understood the British like their governments to talk right and act left.

So I think for all Cameron and Clegg's smarm this will blow back as time wears on, generating profound bitterness, and I think at PMQs we got a brief glimpse of Cameron realising he was at risk of being "found out", exposed by someone more ruthless than he is (I digress, but psychologically Ed may truly give him the willies - after winning by knifing his own brother, what is he not capable of? I'm glad he's on our side...).

A good start. A pity we will have to wait five long years before Ed can be measured upon what he does.

Anonymous said...

No surprise that Milliband will support the government on the issue of new medicals for DLA; it was New Labour who brought in the retesting of incapacity benefit claimants on far tougher to satisfy criteria with the appalling James Purnell.