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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot