The mystery of Miliband's caution
- 22 September 2013
- From the section UK Politics
"A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma".
Ed Miliband's performance this morning on the Andrew Marr show reminds me of that old description of Winston Churchill's.
On the one hand, the Labour leader has done what many have demanded of him. He has unveiled not just one policy but a string of them - a reversal of what critics call the "bedroom tax", the strengthening of the minimum wage and an obligation on larger firms to train an apprentice for every non-EU skilled immigrant they hire.
On the other, he spent his conference curtain-raising interview with Andrew Marr sounding evasive about many other key policy questions.
Will the public sector pay cap be lifted?
Will top rate tax rise, let alone tax on those who the party now says are not rich (ie those earning £60,000)?
Will Labour change its opposition to an EU referendum?
Will the minimum wage go up under Labour? Will immigration go down?
The answer in each case was a mixture of little more than a wish - eg "I want to see the overall level of immigration fall/minimum wage go up" - or wait and see - "we'll spell out our plans at the next election."
This can partly be put down to Ed Miliband's unwillingness to promise what he knows he can't be sure to deliver (after all the government couldn't tell you the tax or immigration rate in 3 years time);.
It's partly due to his natural caution but it's also to do with style.
The Labour leader seemed to regard today's questions as an invitation not to give an answer but to deliver a pre-tested soundbite on a vaguely related issue.
So it is that Labour risks unveiling real policy substance and still leaving people wondering what on earth the man who wants to be our next prime minister might do if he reached Number 10.
The announcement on immigration/apprenticeships - "one in, one trained" - is fascinating. It is designed to cure two problems that many have long worried about - the so-called "free rider" problem (big companies relying on someone else to train the staff they need to recruit) and British firms' addiction to hiring immigrants as a cure to skill shortages.
I can see a potential problem with the policy.
Might firms not just move abroad or outsource rather than taking on the costs and bureaucracy of taking on an apprenticeship each time they want to hire skilled overseas workers?
Won't a company that feels it needs to hire 5 computer programmers from abroad simply outsource the work? I'll pose the question and post the answer when I get it.
Labour's answer to my question is that a version of this policy has been tried in Australia but hasn't led to a cut in jobs. Australia gives firms that want to take in an immigrant the option to pay into a training levy.
What's more, one of Ed's policy wonks tells me, there are already lots of conditions attached to sponsoring a migrant (for example the job has to be advertised in the UK first) so there's no reason to think an additional skills requirement will be the thing that will trigger exit or outsourcing.