Is Labour right to focus on "dealing with the deficit"?

Douglas Alexander is the latest shadow cabinet member to speak about cuts -- but this may not be the

Labour has continued it's bid for "economic credibility". The latest shadow cabinet member to throw himself behind the new emphasis on cuts is Douglas Alexander, who told the Guardian:

I don't think the public has yet heard us talking enough about dealing with the deficit, as well as talking about the need to boost growth and jobs.

The shadow foreign secretary's intervention by no means a game-changer, but it does indicate determination from Labour top command to reinforce their new line that they would accept the Tories' cuts if in government.

Balls drew the ire of the unions when he committed Labour to a continued public sector pay freeze (with the proviso that help is given to the low paid). This approach -- accepting cuts, but with caveats -- was continued by Alexander in the Guardian interview, when he said that Labour supported the household benefit cap as long as it does not "render people homeless".

Labour has been criticised for an incoherent message, and early polling did not indicate an instant boost. An ICM/Guardian poll this week asked how the tougher position affected likelihood to support Labour. 72 per cent said it made no difference one way or another; just 10 per cent said it would make them more likely to vote Labour, and 13 per cent said it made them less likely to vote for the party, giving the shift a net rating of minus three.

Of course, it has not yet had much time to bed in, which explains the comments from Alexander, a key strategist. We can expect more Labour figures to add their voices to this new "austerity Labour" pot.

He explained his position thus:

There have always been two parts to the Labour argument - a short-term stimulus now to get the economy moving and medium-term cuts to get the deficit down. It was always vital that we won the first part of that argument - that the government are going too far and too fast - and I think thanks to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls we are winning that argument. But the second half of that argument - that the deficit has to come down - has to be emphasised more, and all of us have a responsibility to make that case. We have talked a lot about the first and we need to talk a lot more about the second"

But is this really the best plan, and have we heard a lot about growth? Ultimately, accepting your opponent's terms makes it look like they were right all along. As my colleague Mehdi Hasan recently argued, it would be far more effective for the party to construct their own narrative:

So what should the alternative, Labour frame be? The answer is obvious: growth and jobs. In November 2011, a YouGov poll found that more voters (37 per cent) wanted the government to focus on growth, "even if this means the deficit stays longer, or gets worse", than on reducing the deficit (36 per cent), "even if this means growth remains slow". Given that YouGov's polls show Labour leading the Conservatives by 18 points on job creation but trailing them by 22 points on deficit reduction, it seems strange to focus all the rhetoric and airtime on closing the deficit gap.

Growth has slowed to a halt (it looks like we're already back in recession) and this is an area where the government is vulnerable. Yet it does not look like the opposition will be taking this easy line of attack any time soon.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism