Cameron's East Germany comparison was absurd and offensive

The Prime Minister's Tea Party-esque caricatures are a substitute for real debate.

In her 2003 book Stasiland, Anna Funder documents what life was like for millions of people in East Germany, the inaptly named German Democratic Republic, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She describes the way the Stasi kept control by spying on people, recruiting half a million people to spy on their neighbours or members of their own families, tapping phones, generating files on their fellow citizens which, laid upright end to end, would have formed a line 180 kilometres long.

In East Germany, political prisoners were jailed. People who attempted to leave were arrested, or even shot as they crossed the border. East Germans voted by approving the only name on the ballot paper, or by putting a line through it. Those who chose not to support the approved candidate - the ballot was not secret - could lose their job or be expelled from university, and would come under close surveillance from the Stasi.

You might think that, whatever arguments and differences British politicians have with each other, we can all agree that nobody wants to change our open, democratic society into anything like East Germany. We have our arguments in public, we campaign for support, we win or we lose and we argue again.

Yet in describing Ed Miliband's superb speech to the Labour Party conference last week, David Cameron was quoted in the Sun as having said, “He might believe in One Nation, but I thought it sounded more like East Germany than Great Britain.”

He might think this is funny. It's unlikely he thinks it's clever. You can tell by the mess he's made of the economy - a double-dip recession and borrowing going up - that David Cameron isn't any good at economics, but surely he's better at history than this. He surely doesn't believe it. If he does, he needs to explain himself.

Here are some of the things Ed Miliband called for last week. Better vocational education and more apprenticeships. A proper split between high street and casino banking. Making it easier for businesses to plan for the long term. An end to rip-off pension charges. I don't know why those things sound like East Germany to David Cameron. They don't sound like East Germany to me. A divided Germany is not the most obvious model for a one nation politician.

The last thing we need in this country is to import the worst elements of US Tea Party politics into our own. It's dishonest, it's fatuous and it debases our politics. We don't need to start comparing our opponents to regimes which in reality epitomise worse evils than anything we see in Britain today, either on the mainstream left or the mainstream right. We don't want politics in which offensive caricatures take the place of arguments, or in which a genuine issue of conscience like abortion becomes a party political dividing line.

I'm sending David Cameron a copy of Stasiland. I genuinely hope he reads it. And then I hope he will realise that he made a bad mistake in stooping so low as to invoke one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century in describing a contemporary mainstream British political party. I hope the Prime Minister will reflect on what he said, and take it back.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

David Cameron listens to Foreign Secretary William Hague during the opening day of the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention (though it is reported that just 100 emails were checked).

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.