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.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.