Miliband needs to change the subject

To be heard on the economy again, the Labour leader should talk more about public services.

So Ed Miliband has made another speech on the economy. This time the focus was an attack on the government's fiscal strategy. (My colleague George Eaton looks at the arguments in more detail here) This time there was a bit less of the broader, moralising language about the need for more responsible, non-predatory capitalism that has been the main feature of the Labour leader's rhetoric recently. The idea, it seems, was to set up next week's autumn statement as a test for the Chancellor. Can he show that his deficit reduction and debt containment plan is working? (Ed wouldn't be asking unless he was fairly sure the answer is "no".)

As I wrote in my column this week, Labour is still struggling to win the big macroeconomic argument about how best to balance the need to stimulate growth and show responsibility with public money. Ed Balls feels vindicated in his judgement that cutting hard and fast would choke off the recovery, making it harder to generate the revenue needed to shrink the deficit. But voters were persuaded by George Osborne's simpler analogies of household finance - we are in debt, so we must not spend. (No-one has found a way to turn Keynes's paradox of thrift into a nifty slogan, although Miliband's line about not being able to pay off the credit card without a job is a decent attempt.)

My suspicion is that people are simply not yet ready to listen to Labour at all on the economy. One shadow cabinet minister described the problem to me recently in psychological terms. The electorate's view of who is to blame for the mess we are in is affected by "cognitive dissonance" - the phenomenon that leads people to ignore evidence and arguments that challenge a position in which a prior emotional investment has been made. In other words, having been persuaded that Labour should not be trusted to run the economy and accepted that someone else should have a go, voters do not want to feel rebuked for choosing poorly.

That will change over time, since people will also always end up blaming the current administration for their pain. But no-one can say how quickly that will happen. Whatever the two Eds say about what should have happened, austerity is now the fixed backdrop to the economic debate. They need to find a way to move the conversation forwards to a discussion about who has the better ideas for treating people fairly and looking after them when there is no money to spend. That means no longer postponing difficult choices around public sector reform. The party needs an account of how it would get the right outcomes when simply spending more isn't on the agenda, thereby tackling also the tricky issue of how much money was "wasted" between 1997-2010 and how much "invested." In that respect, Labour has a certain advantage in that voters trust the party to care about services.

I am told that Miliband intends to tackle this question in the new year. That would probably coincide with a difficult period for the government as an inevitable winter crisis stirs up popular anger about bungled NHS reforms. If Miliband can come up with a compelling story about how it would get "more for less" in public services, the Tories would be vulnerable to the charge of being reckless and heartless cutters and Labour would be more credible on the deficit. It isn't yet remotely clear what that story might be though.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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