With hindsght, Liam Byrne’s demotion was probably inevitable from March last year, when Labour officially abstained on a piece of legislation before the Commons called the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill.
The Bill – now an Act, because it has become law – might more accurately have been named the Make Cait Reilly Do Work Experience (at Poundland) Act, because it was prompted by the case of a Birmingham graduate who successfully took the Government to court after being told she would lose her benefits unless she agreed to work in a shop for no pay.
Ms Reilly, who has a degree in Geology from the University of Birmingham, was told she could lose her £53.45-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance if she turned down the two-week unpaid placement at Poundland.
Three judges ruled the regulations behind most of the back-to-work schemes were unlawful (a finding also upheld by the Supreme Court). The Government’s response was to change the law and legislation was rushed through the Commons.
For some Labour activists, this looked like the perfect opportunity to take a principled stand by opposing the legislation.
But the party leadership took a different view. Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill), the party’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and a Birmingham MP, explained at the time that Labour’s own plans to provide a “compulsory jobs guarantee” for young people and the long term unemployed also depended on governments having the legal power to dock benefits from unemployed people who refused to co-operate.
This provoked fury among some Labour activists who placed the blame on Mr Byrne personally – although it must have been a collective decision of the party leadership to abstain in the Bill.
And 43 Labour MPs defied orders to vote against the legislation on either the second or third reading, including Birmingham MPs Richard Burden (Lab Northfield) and Roger Godsiff (Lab Hall Green), as well as Black Country MP David Winnick (Lab Walsall North).
It wasn’t the first or last time Mr Byrne clashed with some colleagues but looking back, it was probably the moment that decided his fate, fairly or not.
And so it was that in October, Mr Byrne was reshuffled out of the shadow cabinet and given a more lowly post as shadow Universities Minister.
I was reminded of Mr Byrne’s travails when I read a speech delivered by Rachel Reeves, his replacement as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary.
This was spun up by Labour’s PR machine as “her first major policy speech” since she took on the job.
But some of the things she said were very familiar.
She said: “The centrepiece and foundation stone of Labour’s economic plan is a compulsory jobs guarantee for young people and the long term unemployed”.
This is compulsory work for people aged 18 to 24 who are unemployed for a year or older people unemployed for two. In other words, the “centrepiece” is one of Mr Byrne’s policies.
Then there is the plan to increase the initial rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance for people who have previously worked and paid National Insurance.
This would be “cost neutral” because it would be paid for by restricting access to contributory Jobseeker’s Allowance for people who have never worked – effectively cutting payments to some people.
This, in fact, is another of Mr Byrne’s policies, although it was presented by Ms Reeves as a new announcement.
Finally, Ms Reeves announced something genuinely new: “A new requirement for jobseekers to take training if they do not meet basic standards of maths, English and IT – training they will be required to take up alongside their job search, or lose their benefits.”
While more literacy classes for people who lack basic skills might be a good thing, the plan to withdraw benefits from people who fail to attend is basically Labour pre-empting a Tory plan to do roughly the same thing.
And while there wasn’t any explicit hint of this in Ms Reeves’ speech, the subtext (of the Tory policy too) is that it will become harder for immigrants to claim benefits – unless they make the effort to learn English.
Leaving aside the pros and cons of the proposal, it’s surely somewhere to the right of anything Mr Byrne ever proposed. And yet, there’s barely a peep from activists about Ms Reeves’ speech.
Coming from her, it somehow seems less objectionable than when it comes from her predecessor.
Perhaps it illustrates how tribal politics remains, not least within the Labour Party.
Mr Byrne, after all, is still seen as part of the Blairite tribe, while Ms Reeves only came under prominence in recent years, and is seen as Ed-ite through and through.
Or perhaps, as some speculate, it’s because the leadership is seen to be more firmly behind Ms Reeves – while it was happy to let the impression grow that Mr Byrne was off in the wilderness just doing his own thing, however misleading that view may have been.
Either way, the policy hasn’t changed much, except for the newfound enthusiasm for taking benefits away from the illiterate. What’s new is the face – but it’s a face the party seems to like a lot better.