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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New New Labour: forget ideological purity – Jeremy Corbyn is building a mass appeal party

Rather than a Seventies revival, the Labour leader is creating a social democratic party giving opportunities to all parts of the population.

Does the general election result signal a new political and, dare I say it, public relations phase for Labour?

There is a consensus among commentators and MPs across the political spectrum that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has been a continuous struggle to revive the party’s ideological purity and rekindle its cultural and political relationship with the trade unions.

The Economist cover depicting Corbyn as Lenin with the caption “Backwards, Comrades!” encapsulated the mood about a leader thought to only offer old and sometimes toxic solutions to new problems such as the gig economy, Brexit, fintech and corporate taxation.

Criticisms about militant left politics and Seventies nostalgia exist in a political and cultural framework constructed and passionately preserved by New Labour and its proponents. New Labour was the mark of a newly reformed party that had detached itself from the politically and electorally incapacitating idea of common ownership of the means of production (known as Clause IV), and endorsed competitive market economics.

The 1996 manifesto “New Labour, New Life for Britain” set out the party’s “third way” approach to realign the free market with social justice. For New Labour, the state’s minimised role in the economy, the liberalisation of financial services and public-private partnerships can and will lead to an effective taxation system and investment in health, housing and education.

The intellectual architects of New Labour cast this ideological departure as a necessity for denouncing an alleged anachronistic and unrealistic socialist way of thinking, and effectively regaining the trust of the electorate.

Whereas Tony Blair’s New Labour embraced the free market for communicating the party’s modernisation, Corbyn subverts the logic of the free market for the same effect – to present a party fit to govern in the 21st century.

Corbyn’s leadership cannot and should not be perceived as a nostalgic return to a strong state thriving on high taxes and the provision of welfare at the expense of social mobility, entrepreneurship and ultimately electability. Instead, Corbyn’s leadership is an attempt to develop a New New Labour based on the premise of participatory democracy.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of perpetual financial crises, political volatility and consolidation programmes, citizens in the UK and across the world are frustrated with the lack of political imagination and determination.

The conviction of the efficiency of an independent market in every aspect of social life including health, housing and education prevents political leaders and policymakers from implementing radical ideas. Corbyn’s leadership and political programme highlighted the limitations of New Labour in times of crisis and distrust. New Labour has grown old, and the disbelief in socialism appears as a conservative dogma that only contributes to an ever-greater disparity between citizens and parliamentary politics.

The 2017 Labour manifesto, “For the Many Not the Few”, envisions a productive role for the state but such a role is neither restrictive nor a top-down affair. Corbyn’s New New Labour regains its legitimacy as a social democratic party – and the electorate’s trust – by striving to create opportunities on both national and local levels for all members of the population to make meaningful contributions to policymaking, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to these opportunities.

From crowdsourced Prime Minister’s Questions, massive mobilisation of activists inside and outside the party’s structures to the understanding of wealth creation as a collective endeavour, the Labour party has the potential to become a creative platform upon which membership, participation, individual ideas and anxieties do matter.

Progressive taxation, redistribution of wealth and nationalisation of key industries are nostalgic musings about lost political battles as long as there exist rigid boundaries between the citizen, politics and the economy. The restructuring of Labour and the redefinition of activism according to the principles of participatory democracy have enhanced the meaning of deliberation and proven that social democracy is capable of dynamic reform and renewal.

What does the future hold for Labour and its multiple ideological orientations? Condemning Tony Blair’s New Labour and praising Corbyn’s new kind of politics after beating expectations in the election is not enough. It should be the duty and aspiration of each Labour leader to formulate a New New Labour for a party that is faithful to its social democratic values and is able to govern by offering new solutions to new problems.

Dr Kostas Maronitis is a cultural and media sociologist, and lecturer at Leeds Trinity University. He is the author of “Postnationalism and the Challenges to European Integration in Greece”.