Where next for Ed? Mehdi Hasan on a fraternal dispute

The Labour leader ended a bad January on a high - and then brother David intervened.

Ed Miliband had a bad, bad January - but ended on a high. Having fallen behind in the polls, been attacked by his guru, got his message mixed up on cuts and gaffed on Twitter, the final few days of the month saw him help force RBS chief executive Stephen Hester turn down his million-pound bonus and put Cameron on the defensive, and then put in a strong performance against the Prime Minister in Tuesday's Commons debate on Europe ("Ed Miliband was very good," admitted the frequently-critical Simon Hoggart) and at PMQs, on the first day of February, on the subjects of bank bonuses and NHS reform .

Attacking the bankers - over excessive bonuses, lack of transparency, failure to lend and the rest - has proved to be a boon for Ed M. Recent polls show Labour has slashed the Tories' 5-point lead and I suspect we'll continue to see a mild uptick in the party's poll rating in the coming days and weeks. Why? Because, in the current climate, left-populism works. The public wants the political elites to take on the financial elites. It's not rocket science - and I'm not sure how many times some of us have to make this rather simple and obvious point to a cautious Labour leadership.

In October 2010, for example, after Ed M failed to make any public comment whatsoever on a 55 per cent jump in pay for FTSE 100 executives, I wrote:

So, Ed, where are you? Still running from the "Red" tag? Let's be clear. There is nothing "red" about objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries. In fact, the public would be on your side if you did - polls show voters support a high pay commission and higher taxes on bonuses and object to the growing gap between rich and poor in modern Britain.

Eighteen months later, Ed M is starting to reap the rewards of "objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries". Here's political editor Joe Murphy in Monday's Evening Standard:

Ed Miliband has scored a big victory that will give his leadership a much-needed boost.

But Ed mustn't lose momentum on this issue - as he did on phone-hacking last summer, where he dropped the baton and allowed Cameron to kick the Murdoch/media reform issue into the long grass. The Labour leader has to own the issue of high pay - and keep banging on about it whenever he gets the chance. It isn't that hard, to be honest. For instance, why doesn't he come out loudly and publicly against the new bonus scheme being demanded by Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins, whose taxpayer-funded basic salary is already £560,000? Why doesn't he position himself at the head of a campaign to demand RBS refrains from paying out multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded bonuses to members of its investment banking division, as is expected to happen in the not-too-distant future?

Then there's the issue of the cuts and Labour's various contortions on the subject. As a must-read, myth-busting Guardian leader points out today:

After just one year of full-blown austerity, marked by student occupations and rioting, it is sobering to be reminded that 94% of Mr Osborne's departmental spending cuts are still to come, along with another 88% of the planned reductions to benefits.

Ed M mustn't panic. The cuts have yet to fully kick in - let's see how popular (and/or effective) austerity measures are in 12 or 18 months time. Now is not the time for mixed-messaging on spending cuts, or cutting and running, otherwise Labour won't be able to reap the electoral rewards of having opposed them once the public turns - and it will turn, mark my words - against slash-and-burn, austerity-obsessed, 1930s-style economics. After all, as David Blanchflower notes in this week's magazine, the "Osborne collapse" has well and truly begun.

It is unfashionable, I know, but I've never bought into the nonsensical line from the right-wing press that Ed Miliband can't win, won't win, will never be prime minister, blah blah blah. It isn't just that, as Lord Ashcroft of all people has pointed out, he coud get "close to 40 per cent of the vote [in 2015] without needing to get out of bed". It's much more than that: Ed, at his best, brightest and boldest, understands the issues that matter to the great British public (see "squeezed middle", high pay, vested interests, etc) and, from time to time, displays excellent political judgement (phone hacking, the Hester bonus, shadow cabinet elections, etc). It's too soon to write him off. Meanwhile, the past few days have shown how unpredictable and capricious modern British politics can be: against the odds, Ed has recovered after his awful start to the year.

So, will big brother David's intervention in this week's New Statesman harm him? It wasn't, as some have claimed, an out-and-out attack on his younger brother. Nonetheless, the elder Miliband clearly isn't happy about the direction of the Ed-led Labour Party, isn't afraid to let people know that he isn't happy and surely must have known how a febrile, splits-obsessed media pack would respond to his detailed, if somewhat dry, critique of the views not so much of Ed himself but one of Ed's chief supporters, Roy Hattersley - and, that too, five months after the latter's original article on social democracy appeared in Political Quarterly. (On a side note, and to be fair, it is worth pointing out that David does volunteer four positive and named references to Ed in his NS piece.)

I'm never quite sure what David's game-plan is; what it is that he wants. The Times's Sam Coates had the best line on Twitter:

All DM's old tricks - setting up straw men (Hattersley) to knock down, loyal and disloyal simultaneously, over-complicated. Why do it?

Indeed. Whatever your view of David's intervention, the timing is bad for Ed, coming as it does after his strong performances at PMQs and in the Commons debate on Europe.

Perhaps Ed Miliband is just an unlucky leader. Not according to Steve Richards, in today's Independent. Steve makes a counter-intuitive but powerful argument in his column:

David Cameron's misguided attempt to secure an easy symbolic hit by removing the knighthood of a single banker shows how rocky the ride will be. As I have argued before, Cameron and George Osborne are not the brilliant tacticians or strategists mythology insists they are. They are middle ranking, and when they try to be too clever by half, they slip towards the relegation zone. Voters do not care a damn about the sensitivities of a greedy, incompetent banker, but they can spot a red herring as big and bright as this one.

The failure of this populist gesture shows that the issue demands more clear thinking than a bit of Bullingdon Club game-playing, and points to massive challenges for both Cameron and Ed Miliband in the coming years. For Cameron, the issue confirms my view that he is an unlucky leader.

Yet, according to Steve:

It might not seem this way to him, or to his taunting critics, but Miliband is a lucky leader. He has made a mark in responding to these events, demanding an inquiry into newspapers, while Cameron has still clung to the idea of protecting the old order, and outlining in general terms the case for a new moral capitalism. In doing so, he has had more practical impact on the course of current tumultuous dramas than any recent leader of the opposition.

He rightly concludes:

Cameron and Osborne are awestruck that in every opinion poll voters placed Tony Blair precisely on the centre ground. They want to be in the same place as their hero at the next election. But what it means to be on the centre ground is changing fast now and will have changed even more by then.

(On a related note, my colleague Rafael Behr makes the opposite case to Steve in this week's New Statesman cover story, entitled "Lucky Dave".)

 

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.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.