Duncan Smith rejects evidence-based policy: "I believe this to be true"

There's no evidence for his claim that 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the benefit cap but he "believes" it regardless.

I've already told you five things Iain Duncan Smith doesn't want you to know about the benefit cap (which is introduced nationally today), but I couldn't allow his egregious interview on the Today progamme this morning to pass without comment. 

Early on in his duel with John Humphrys, the Work and Pensions Secretary declared that the homelessness figures had "hardly moved". The reality? Homelessness in England is up by 27 per cent since the government came to power in 2010. 

Later challenged over his claim that 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the benefit cap (a statement that the UK Statistics Authority said was "unsupported by the official statistics"), Duncan Smith decided to dispense with any pretence of evidence-based policy. "I believe this to be true!" he cried, demonstrating the same faith-based approach that led George Osborne to believe that cutting public spending in the middle of a slump would lead to higher growth.

He told Humphrys:

The reality is, I believe that to be right. I believe that we are already seeing people go back to work, who were not going to go back to work until they were assured of the cap.

Any remaining ambition that David Cameron had to lead the "the most open and transparent government in the world" finally died with those words. 

P.S. In an apparent fulfilment of his prophecy that "too many tweets might make a twat", David Cameron tweeted this morning.

We're rolling out a cap on Benefits today - @IDS_MP and I are determined to make work pay, and help the UK compete on the #GlobalRace.

— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) July 15, 2013

Unfortunately for Cameron, @IDS_MP is not, as he thought, the Work and Pensions Secretary but a spoof account whose recent tweets include "I've always supported a Mansion Tax. Your Tax buys my Mansion. Chin chin!" and "A thrifty way to keep cool in this heat wave is to dab the ice from your Champagne bucket onto your forehead."

Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.