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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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