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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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