Miliband uses new year message to counter the Tories' welfare myths

Labour leader's message challenges the stereotype of the welfare 'scrounger'.

The first big political event of the new year will be the Commons vote on the Welfare Uprating Bill, which will enshrine in law George Osborne's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent per annum for the next three years (well below the rate of inflation). Ed Miliband's new year message, which you can watch above, offers further evidence of how he intends to challenge the Conservatives' welfare myths. 

The Labour leader draws on a recent visit to a food bank to reject the stereotype of the welfare 'scrounger' presented by the Tories' recent campaign ads. He says: 

I also met some of the people using the food bank, some of them out of work and some of them in work.

The story that stuck with me the most was a man who told me his story he said: “I walked eleven miles to a job interview because I couldn’t afford the bus fare, I got the job then I walked eleven miles back," he was still looking for somewhere to live because he hadn’t got his first pay cheque and he was using the food bank.

Such a long way away from the normal stereotype you’d have about the people using food banks.

When Miliband raised the subject of food banks at the final PMQs of the year, some Conservatives accused him of painting an implausible picture of a Dickensian Britain of poverty and woe. But the Labour leader's decision to return to the subject shows that he believes the growth of food banks, which have increased six-fold in the last three years, is emblematic of all that has gone wrong with the UK economy. 

Perhaps the most striking line in Miliband's message is his assertion that "They want you to believe that we have a good government being let down by bad people. We don’t. We've got a bad government that is letting down the good people of this country." Given the propensity of some Tories (most notably the Britannia Unchained group of MPs) to blame Britain's declining economic fortunes on the indolence of its people, it's an argument that could begin to resonate. 

As the leader of a party which holds just 10 out of a possible 197 seats in the south outside of London, Miliband also repeats his declaration that one nation Labour is "a party of the private sector as well as the public sector, a party of south as well as north". But don't be surprised if you no longer hear the Labour leader refer to the "north-south divide". As today's Times (£) reports, a review of the party's performance in the south of England by former cabinet minister John Denham, who now serves as Miliband's PPS (and who recently blogged for The Staggers on Labour-Lib Dem relations), and Labour general secretary Iain McNicol has found that the phrase alienates southern voters.

Denham explains: "It used to be quite common to hear people talk about the north-south divide. If you think about that, the message is that everybody in the southern part is doing okay. If you use that language, it sounds as though you represent the northern bit. 

A classic mistake for the party for a long time was using that sort of language — and then wondering why people in the south didn’t think we were talking about them."

The phrase "one nation" appears no fewer than nine times in the five minute message. With an eye to the charge that his party's policy agenda remains ill-defined, Miliband promises "concrete" announcements in 2013 on areas "from business to education to welfare". If the Labour leader is to offer more than what David Miliband, writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, described as "defensive social democracy", he will need to fulfil that pledge in full.

Ed Miliband used the phrase "one nation" nine times in his new year message. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear