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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue