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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.

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

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.