Labour's welfare wars show a left hostile to thinking aloud

The success of the next Labour government is dependent on the left learning to read something before developing an opinion on it.

A little over a year ago, anti-American protests rippled across the Middle East. From Baghdad to Karachi, tens of thousands of people took to the streets. In Libya, the protests provided the perfect opportunity for a terrorist group to strike, attacking the US Embassy and murdering four people, including the ambassador.

These were not protests sparked by drone strikes or American support for repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. They were the product of an Islamophobic film, The Innocence of Muslims, uploaded to YouTube by an Egyptian émigré fresh from a stint in a Californian jail for financial fraud.

That a lone crank with a low profile and an internet connection can cause riots and death in another country is the gravest symptom of a new and unpleasant disease for policymakers, but there was another, comparatively minor outbreak yesterday. A progressive and fair-minded policy paper from the IPPR was given a lurid introduction by the Telegraph, and the response from the left would have embarrassed a toddler in a shoe shop.

Within hours, Rachel Reeves, Labour’s welfare lead, took to Twitter to rule out adopting the report. The biggest problem here is that, at that time, none of the people getting angry on the internet could possibly have read the report, 57 pages of weighty material that wasn't even available to read when the Telegraph’s story was published. The full report had been online for a little over thirty minutes before Labour’s welfare spokesman consigned it to the dustbin.

This is Ed Miliband’s greatest challenge. He is less than two years away from an election that he is on course to win, and very probably with a large majority. But he’s also on course to take office in a country that will have just experienced close to seven years of near-uninterrupted misery. His biggest problem isn’t 7 May 2015. It’s what happens next. Despite the noises off, Labour actually has more policy at this point in the parliament than almost any successful opposition leader; the only exception, Tony Blair, doesn’t count, because his party had been out of office for almost 20 years at the time, and had accrued a fairly hefty laundry list. But Ed has struggled to impose many of his big-ticket policies on the public consciousness because he faces a party that is becoming almost entirely hostile to thinking aloud.

Political arguments are like wars; they are very difficult to win on multiple fronts. What Ed Miliband is trying to do is shift the policy but leave the political language intact; he speaks the language of triangulation while offering something far more radical. The problem is, if an obscure fanatic from Nowhere, Idaho can knock a superpower’s foreign policy off course, think of the impact that people who have more followers than the state of Idaho can have.  The people tweeting about the IPPR’s report don’t have an issue with the policy, because they don’t know what it is. They have an issue with the language; which means instead of talking to people outside his tribe about what he stands for, Ed and the Labour Party have to turn inwards once more.

The good news for Ed is, in the short-term, this isn’t a problem. For all of the spirit of optimism in Tory ranks, while city dwellers, ethnic minorities and everyone who lives in Scotland view the Conservative Party with distaste, there is no real cost in the polls from his unruly and cantankerous party. The bad news is what happens after 2015, which Labour is still essentially unprepared for. The success of the Labour opposition is all but guaranteed. The success of the next Labour government is dependent on the Labour movement learning to read something before developing an opinion on it.

Stephen Bush (@stephenkb) is a contributing editor to Progress, for whom he writes a weekly column. 

Ed Miliband speaks on living standards at Battersea Power station on November 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.