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.


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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Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley: "The Greens can win over Ukip voters too"

The party co-leaders condemned Labour's "witch hunt" of Green-supporting members. 

“You only have to cast your eyes along those green benches to think this place doesn't really represent modern Britain,” said Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green MP, of the House of Commons. “There are lots of things you could do about it, and one is say: ‘Why not have job share MPs?’”

Politics is full of partnerships and rivalries, but not job shares. When Lucas and Jonathan Bartley were elected co-leaders of the Green party in September, they made history. 

“I don't think any week's been typical so far,” said Bartley, when I met the co-leaders in Westminster’s Portcullis House. During the debate on the Hinkley power plant, he said, Lucas was in her constituency: “I was in Westminster, so I could pop over to do the interviews.”

Other times, it’s Bartley who travels: “I’ve been over to Calais already, and I was up in Morecambe and Lancaster. It means we’re not left without a leader.”

The two Green leaders have had varied careers. Lucas has become a familiar face in Parliament since 2010, whereas Bartley has spent most of his career in political backrooms and wonkish circles (he co-founded the think tank Ekklesia). In the six weeks since being elected, though, they seem to have mastered the knack of backing each other up. After Lucas, who represents Brighton Pavilion, made her point about the green benches, Bartley chimed in. “My son is a wheelchair user. He is now 14," he said. "I just spent a month with him, because he had to have a major operation and he was in the recovery period. The job share allows that opportunity.”

It’s hard enough for Labour’s shadow cabinet to stay on message. So how will the Greens do it? “We basically said that although we've got two leaders, we've got one set of policies,” said Lucas. She smiled. “Whereas Labour kind of has the opposite.”

The ranks of the Greens, like Labour, have swelled since the referendum. Many are the usual suspects - Remainers still distressed about Brexit. But Lucas and Bartley believe they can tap into some of the discontent driving the Ukip vote in northern England.

“In Morecambe, I was chatting to someone who was deciding whether to vote Ukip or Green,” said Bartley. “He was really distrustful of the big political parties, and he wanted to send a clear message.”

Bartley points to an Ashcroft poll showing roughly half of Leave voters believed capitalism was a force for ill (a larger proportion nevertheless was deeply suspicious of the green movement). Nevertheless, the idea of voters moving from a party defined by border control to one that is against open borders “for now” seems counterintuitive. 

“This issue in the local election wasn’t about migration,” Bartley said. “This voter was talking about power and control, and he recognised the Greens could give him that.

“He was remarking it was the first time anyone had knocked on his door.”

According to a 2015 study by the LSE researcher James Dennison, Greens and Kippers stand out almost equally for their mistrust in politicians, and their dissatisfaction with British democracy. 

Lucas believes Ukip voters want to give “the system” a “bloody big kick” and “people who vote Green are sometimes doing that too”. 

She said: “We’re standing up against the system in a very different way from Ukip, but to that extent there is a commonality.”

The Greens say what they believe, she added: “We’re not going to limit our ambitions to the social liberal.”

A more reliable source of support may be the young. A May 2015 YouGov poll found 7 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29 intended to vote Green, compared to just 2 per cent of those aged 60+. 

Bartley is cautious about inflaming a generational divide, but Lucas acknowledges that young people feel “massively let down”.

She said: “They are certainly let down by our housing market, they are let down by universities. 

“The Greens are still against tuition fees - we want a small tax for the biggest businesses to fund education because for us education is a public good, not a private commodity.”

Of course, it’s all very well telling young people what they want to hear, but in the meantime the Tory government is moving towards a hard Brexit and scrapping maintenance grants. Lucas and Bartley are some of the biggest cheerleaders for a progressive alliance, and Lucas co-authored a book with rising Labour star Lisa Nandy on the subject. On the book tour, she was “amazed” by how many people turned up “on wet Friday evenings” to hear about “how we choose a less tribal politics”. 

Nevertheless, the idea is still controversial, not least among many in Nandy's own party. The recent leadership contest saw a spate of members ejected for publicly supporting the Greens, among other parties. 

“It was like a witch hunt,” said Lucas. “Some of those tweets were from a year or two ago. They might have retweeted something that happened to be from me saying ‘come join us in opposing fracking’, which is now a Labour policy. To kick someone out for that is deeply shocking.”

By contrast, the Greens have recently launched a friends scheme for supporters, including those who are already a member of another party. “The idea that one party is going to know it all is nonsense,” said Bartley. “That isn’t reality.”

Lucas and Bartley believe the biggest potential for a progressive alliance is at constituency level, where local people feel empowered, not disenfranchised, by brokering deals. They recall the 1997 election, when voters rallied around the independent candidate Martin Bell to trounce the supposedly safe Tory MP Neil Hamilton. Citing a recent letter co-signed by the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru condemning Tory rhetoric on immigrants, Bartley points out that smaller parties are already finding ways to magnify their voice. The fact the party backed down on listing foreign workers was, he argued, “a significant win”. 

As for true electoral reform, in 2011, a referendum on changing Britain's rigid first past the post system failed miserably. But the dismal polls for the Labour party, could, Lucas thinks, open up a fresh debate.

“More and more people in the Labour party recognise now that no matter who their leader is, their chance of getting an outright majority at the next election is actually vanishingly small,” she said. “It’s in their interests to support electoral reform. That's the game changer.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.