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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder