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.

Show Hide image

It's Gary Lineker 1, the Sun 0

The football hero has found himself at the heart of a Twitter storm over the refugee children debate.

The Mole wonders what sort of topsy-turvy universe we now live in where Gary Lineker is suddenly being called a “political activist” by a Conservative MP? Our favourite big-eared football pundit has found himself in a war of words with the Sun newspaper after wading into the controversy over the age of the refugee children granted entry into Britain from Calais.

Pictures published earlier this week in the right-wing press prompted speculation over the migrants' “true age”, and a Tory MP even went as far as suggesting that these children should have their age verified by dental X-rays. All of which leaves your poor Mole with a deeply furrowed brow. But luckily the British Dental Association was on hand to condemn the idea as unethical, inaccurate and inappropriate. Phew. Thank God for dentists.

Back to old Big Ears, sorry, Saint Gary, who on Wednesday tweeted his outrage over the Murdoch-owned newspaper’s scaremongering coverage of the story. He smacked down the ex-English Defence League leader, Tommy Robinson, in a single tweet, calling him a “racist idiot”, and went on to defend his right to express his opinions freely on his feed.

The Sun hit back in traditional form, calling for Lineker to be ousted from his job as host of the BBC’s Match of the Day. The headline they chose? “Out on his ears”, of course, referring to the sporting hero’s most notable assets. In the article, the tabloid lays into Lineker, branding him a “leftie luvvie” and “jug-eared”. The article attacked him for describing those querying the age of the young migrants as “hideously racist” and suggested he had breached BBC guidelines on impartiality.

All of which has prompted calls for a boycott of the Sun and an outpouring of support for Lineker on Twitter. His fellow football hero Stan Collymore waded in, tweeting that he was on “Team Lineker”. Leading the charge against the Murdoch-owned title was the close ally of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, who tweeted:

Lineker, who is not accustomed to finding himself at the centre of such highly politicised arguments on social media, responded with typical good humour, saying he had received a bit of a “spanking”.

All of which leaves the Mole with renewed respect for Lineker and an uncharacteristic desire to watch this weekend’s Match of the Day to see if any trace of his new activist persona might surface.


I'm a mole, innit.