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.

Photo: Justin Tallis/Getty Images
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If Jeremy Corbyn does win, the Greens should shut up shop

If self-described socialists continue to organise outside of the Labour party, they risk depriving the left's main outlet of both talent and voters, warns Michael Chessum.

It could all be rash complacency, but for much of left thoughts have already begun to focus on the reality of a Corbyn-led Labour Party. In the Labour left, the air is swirling with new projects – to back Corbyn up as leader, to organise the membership against parts of the PLP if necessary, to bring Labour into social movements and social movements into Labour. But outside Labour, too, the wider left is waking up to discover the entirely different reality that could be posed by a sharp left turn in leadership. In the Green Party, and especially among those on the left of the party, there is increasing pressure to find a formal working arrangement with Corbyn’s Labour, much of which is reflected in Caroline Lucas’s open letter in the Independent last week. An electoral pact is, apparently, already on the table.

Lucas’s call for an electoral pact is a pretty honest gesture, and will not be entirely uncontroversial in her own party; it is certainly worth much more than, as some more cynical onlookers in Labour have put it, “please don’t run against me in Brighton Pavillion”. It could also be significant in terms of electoral arithmetic: after boundary changes, and in any tight election, Labour will need the 3.8 per cent of the vote that the Greens got at the last election.  But while Lucas and other leftwingers in the Green Party are at least acknowledging the issue, there is a danger that they will avoid a more fundamental question: if Corbyn wins, does it really make sense for self-described socialists in the Green Party to continue a separate existence outside of Labour at all?

Corbyn represents the undeniable arrival of a wider political trend. Across Europe, democratic socialism is undergoing a split: yesterday’s “realists”, who argue for an accommodation with neo-liberal economics and the austerity politics that follows it like clockwork, are on one side; on the other is an assortment of socialists and social democrats who argue for something else. Mass anti-austerity politics has not been a one-party affair in the UK: it was built from the ground up by students, workers and community campaigns; it was road-tested in Scotland; and it has been formulated into policy from a variety of angles, as well as by the Corbyn campaign itself. But now, in the face of the realities presented by five more years in opposition, the vital political expression of the anti-austerity movement seems to have come to fruition in the Labour Party.

This fact will leave one of the largest sections of the organised left – the Green left – disorientated and unsure of what to do. Some socialists and leftwingers in the Green Party are there on the basis of a genuine conviction that the green movement, rather than the labour movement, is their political home. But for the vast bulk of those drawn to the Green left – many of them freshly recruited from recent social movements, others exiles from Labour under Blair – the purpose of the Green left is premised largely on the idea that a credible party-political alternative was needed, and that an anti-austerity surge would be impossible inside the Labour Party. This premise is now ebbing away.

The race is now on for the true believers to convince their periphery of the virtues of remaining in the Green Party after Corbyn wins. Many may yet be convinced, and the Labour left should not be complacent about recruiting a sudden tide of departing Greens.  But for those who joined because they wanted to intervene into mainstream politics from the left, there should be no doubt as to where the big fights will now happen, and where those committed to having them should go.

The incorporation of elements of the radical left’s core constituency into the Greens was always a peculiarity of recent British history. Had it become a sustainable arrangement and grown into a faint British Syriza, it would have made the Green Party of England and Wales unique in Europe, where ecologist and green parties usually sit distinctly and uneasily next to their far-left counterparts.

Much of the uneasiness that characterises the relationship between green parties and radical left groupings in other countries is about ideas, but much of it is also about tribalism – the simple fact that they have separate organisations which need to be different, and which breed differences in approach as often as they reflect them. If either the Green left or the Labour left are not careful, this tribalism will replicate itself, weakening everyone and dividing the left for no particularly coherent political reason.

That is why it is so significant that figures as senior as Caroline Lucas are already making overtures to Corbyn’s Labour. However, there is a danger that behind the positive gestures lie a serious of less friendly assumptions: that any electoral pact is temporary, is designed to build and promote the existence of the two separate parties, and would end upon the introduction of a proportional voting system – a move which, although positive in itself, would further entrench the fault lines between the Green and Labour lefts.

There are numerous ways that this could be overcome which would avoid the Greens simply dissolving themselves or quietly surrendering their politics. If it carried majority support in the party, the Green Party could reach the same arrangement with Labour that the Co-operative Party has: it would have its own structures, and would run Green-Labour candidates in places where it won the selection inside the local Labour Party. If there is no majority for such an arrangement, socialist Greens who want a higher degree of unity with Labour could form a faction, first within the Greens, and, if they continued to lose the argument, they could break away to form a platform in Labour.

As the seemingly impossible becomes a reality, there will be all kinds of realignments in the political space that the Labour left and Green left both claim to occupy – not to mention a potential split on Labour’s right wing. The best hope for a healthy realignment of the British left lies in an honest exchange of ideas; a newly democratised and pluralistic Labour Party which embraces – rather than excludes – political energy formerly to its left; and a willingness on the part of external political forces to orientate themselves towards Labour as the political expression of a mass movement. Those forces should involve the left wing of the Green Party.