Labour's framing failures: Mehdi Hasan on the benefits cap

Episode 124

In this week's New Statesman, I have a piece on how Labour is now fixated on a political and economic agenda set by the Tories, who are much more adept at controlling the narrative and "framing" issues. I refer to the work of US cognitive linguist and progressive thinker George Lakoff who argues that attacking your opponents' frame ends up reinforcing their message. Lakoff outlines "a basic principle . . . when you are arguing against the other side: do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame - and it won't be the frame you want." For Lakoff, progressives rely far too much on just dry facts and figures, on Enlightenment reason; conservatives, meanwhile, focus on morals and values. Guess which side tends to succeed in getting its message, its frame, across to voters?

I couldn't help but think of Lakoff and the debate over framing this morning as I listened to Stephen Timms, the shadow employment minister, and one of the nicest and brightest politicians in the party, discuss the coalition's benefit cap on the Today programme, ahead of the debate in the Lords this afternoon.

It was, in my view, a car-crash of an interview and a perfect reminder of why Labour frontbenchers need to understand the importance of framing and get themselves copies of Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant!

The interview began with Evan Davis asking Timms:

What is your policy on the [benefit] cap?

To which the shadow minister replied:

We support the idea of a benefit cap but we are worried that the government wants to introduce it in a very damaging way that is likely to end up costing more than it saves.

In his very first answer, Timms unilaterally disarmed - Labour accepts the "idea" of the cap and quibbles only with the implementation and cost of it. Is this approach going to cut through to voters? Or is it going to confuse the Labour message and reinforce the Tory frame on benefits (out of control budget, feckless claimants, undeserving poor, etc, etc)? I think we know the answer.

Timms then outlined the details of Labour's specific amendment to the bill and pointed out how the opposition objected to the way in which the cap, in some cases, "would make a family homeless" and force them "to be rehoused by their local authority" - at a greater cost.

Next, devil's advocate Davis put forward Iain Duncan Smith's argument and took a pot shot at the Labour position in the process:

The guys is trying to save lots of money on welfare....he meets opposition at every count. he hears people who say they support werlfare form but oppose everything he suggests. I wonder if that's not what you're doing hear, because you say 'We support the idea of a cap but we don't want the cap to be nearly as high as the government are proposing', in effect.

Timms's response began:

We've tabled a specific amendment...

Yawn. A few moments later, the shadow employment minister volunteered the following, astonishing statement:

The government has suggested...there is going to be lots of transitional help. I don't know what that's going to be. We haven't heard any details of that. Maybe the House of Lords will be told what that amount to. That presumably will be costly. We're saying change the bill...

Hold on, did I just hear a Labour spokesman voluntarily, of his own accord, without prompting from the interviewer, remind the audience of a Tory talking-point ("there is going to be lots of transitional help")? Really? Timms might say he was trying to rebut the point (again, incidentally, on practical (i.e. cost) grounds, rather than on moral grounds) and so it's worth remembering Lakoff's dictum: attacking your opponents' frame - be it on benefit caps or deficit reduction - ends up reinforcing their message.

Timms then got caught up in knots trying to answer Davis's question on whether Labour would support an amendment to exclude child benefit from the cap, prompting the genial Today programme presenter to note, with only the faintest hint of sarcasm:

You're not really able to say anything...

He then added:

It would obviously help if you had a policy. We'd know what was going to happen.

Ouch.

So what could Timms have done instead? Well, for a start, he could have said:

Isn't it wrong that this coalition government spends so much time trying to take money from the poorest, most vulnerable members of society while refusing to tax bankers' bonuses?

He could have said:

Evan, let me ask you this: could you or any of the other Today programme presenters live on 62p a day? That's what the coalition government want hard-working, low-income families to try and do with this arbitrary cap. Is that right? Is that fair?

He could have said:

I happen to agree with the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown who says he won't vote for this bill because it'll increase child poverty. If even Paddy Ashdown gets it, why won't Nick Clegg and Vince Cable?

He could have said:

Shouldn't the Work and Pensions Secretary be focusing his energy and attention on creating jobs for the record 2.7 million people who are out of work right now, rather than trying to take money away from some of the poorest, most vulnerable families in this country? The best way to get the benefits bill down is to get people back to work - which this coalition government doesn't seem to be able to do, with 1,300 people a day being thrown onto the dole.

In fact, I happen to think it is both bizarre and unforgivable for a shadow employment (!) minister to appear on the radio and not then mention the word "unemployment" at all, or take the opportunity to attack the coalition's shocking failure to create jobs. "Jobs, jobs, jobs" should be the Labour Party mantra.

I should add, however, that it might be a bit unfair to pick on Timms like this; other shadow cabinet ministers make similar, if not worse, mistakes when it comes to opposing Tory (and Lib Dem) policies. Labour's frontbench is constantly on the defensive, unable to acknowledge or understand the importance of picking their own frames and making their own arguments. As I point out in my piece in the magazine:

There is a theme here - the Tories set the agenda, Labour operates within it.

Until this changes, I think it'll be pretty difficult for Labour to win a majority at the next general election.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Carwyn Jones is preparing for a fight with the UK government

From Labour's soft-nationalist wing, Jones has thought carefully about constitutional politics. 

This week's 20th anniversary of the 1997 Yes vote on devolution in Wales was a rather low-key affair. But then while there are plenty of countries around the world that celebrate an Independence Day, few nations or regions around the world would make much fuss about "Partial Autonomy Day".

The most important single event of the day was, almost certainly, the address by First Minister Carwyn Jones at the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ 20th anniversary conference. The sometimes diffident-seeming Welsh Labour leader has rarely been on stronger form. Much of his speech was predictable: there were his own recollections of the 1997 referendum; some generous reflections on the legacy of his now-departed predecessor, Rhodri Morgan; and a lengthy list of identified achievement of devolved government in Wales. But two other features stood out.

One, which might have struck any observers from outside Wales was the strongly Welsh nationalistic tone of the speech. In truth this has long been typical for Jones, and was a very prominent element of the successful Labour general election campaign in Wales. A fluent Welsh-speaker and long a part of the soft-nationalist wing of Welsh Labour, the First Minister briefly considered what would have been the consequences of the achingly-close 1997 ballot having gone the other way. Wales, we were told, would no longer have had the right to be considered a nation – it might even (gasp!) have lost the right to have its own national football team. But this theme of the speech was also linked to devolution: why should Wales not have parity of treatment on devolved matters with Scotland?

The most striking feature of the speech, however, was the confidence and combativeness with which the First Minister set about attacking the UK government on constitutional matters. This territory has often appeared to be the area which most animates Jones, and on which he is most comfortable. He has clearly thought a great deal about how to protect and develop the constitutional status of devolved Wales. The First Minister was clearly deeply unimpressed by the UK government’s handling of Brexit as a whole, and he linked Brexit to broader problems with the UK government’s approach to the constitution. Brexit was declared in the speech to be the "biggest threat to devolution since its inception" – and the audience were left in no doubt as to where the blame for that lay. Jones was also clearly very comfortable defending the joint stance he has taken with the Scottish National Party First Minister of Scotland, in opposing the EU Withdrawal Bill and much of the UK government’s approach to Brexit negotiations. This high level Labour-SNP cooperation – extraordinary, given the otherwise utterly toxic relations between the two parties – was argued to be the necessary consequence of the UK government’s approach, and the threat of a power-grab by Westminster of powers that are currently devolved. 

Finally, the First Minister had one new card up his sleeve. He was able to announce a Commission on Justice in Wales, to be chaired by a figure of impeccable authority: the soon-to-retire Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, John Thomas. The clear intention of the Welsh government seems to be to use this commission to advance their agenda of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction. This is another matter on which there appears to be little current common ground with the UK government.

Carwyn Jones emerged from the general election as a greatly strengthened figure: having led the Labour campaign in Wales when it appeared that the party might be in difficulty, he deservedly accrued much political capital from Welsh Labour’s success in June. The First Minister has been thinking imaginatively about the UK constitution for some years. But for a long time he failed even to carry much of the Welsh Labour party with him. However, he succeeded in having many of his ideas incorporated into the Labour UK manifesto for June’s election; he is no longer a voice crying out in the wilderness. On the anniversary of devolution, Jones said little that was wholly new. But the combination of everything that he said, and the tone and confidence with which he said it, was striking. This was not the speech of a man looking to back away from a confrontation with the UK government. Wales seems up for a fight.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.