Tony Benn “too often enjoyed prin­ciple at the expense of power”. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Leader: Benn, Blair and a middle way between principle and power

The Labour Party may yet have an opportunity to achieve the right balance between the two Tonys.

If the modern Labour Party has sometimes been accused of being enslaved to public opinion and the focus group, the death of Tony Benn was a reminder of when it blithely disregarded them. After the party’s defeat under the leadership of Michael Foot in the 1983 general election – Labour’s worst since the establishment of universal suffrage and a defeat that opened the way for a long period of Thatcherite hegemony – Mr Benn proudly declared: “For the first time since 1945, a party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people. This is a remarkable development.” That Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives received the support of nearly 13 million was of less significance.

Mr Benn was one of the few living politicians who merited the epithet “inspirational”. His conviction and eloquence were rightly praised in the days following his death at the age of 88. But the uncomfortable truth is that he achieved remarkably little as a practical politician and his intransigence contributed to the split in the Labour Party. None of the signature policies he advocated – mass nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market – was implemented. He left a significant constitutional legacy in the form of the right for hereditary peers to renounce their titles (see his 1961 article on page 34) and the first national referendum (on the EEC in 1975) but for a man of his status and ambition this was of little consolation.

The stance adopted by Mr Benn and his ideological devotees of “no compromise with the electorate” was one of the main causes of Labour’s long electoral exile in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was not until 1997 and the formation of Tony Blair’s New Labour government that many of the policies long championed by the centre left – the minimum wage, devolution, greater investment in health and education, school reform and peace in Northern Ireland – could be achieved.

The experience of four successive general election defeats and years of sectarian warfare instilled in Labour an obsession with party discipline that endures to this day (contrast the division among the Conservatives with the unity of the opposition). It also led to a narrowing of the party’s horizons; as a result, far less was achieved in Labour’s 13 years in office than originally hoped. Rather than overturning the Thatcherite consensus they inherited, Mr Blair and Gordon Brown merely sought to adapt to it. Indeed, it was in the belief that they would prove more efficient administrators of financial capitalism that some on the right openly welcomed their election.

The failures of this period are well known. An already unbalanced economy became even more reliant on finance; the gap between the rich and the poor widened alarmingly; far too few new houses were built; and Britain was led into ruinous and illegal foreign wars.

When Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader in 2010 (in the closest party contest since Mr Benn fought Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981), many warned that his decision to break with New Labour would consign the party to the electoral wilderness just as the 1983 “suicide note” had done. However, three and a half years later, Labour retains a narrow opinion-poll lead over the Conservatives and has a plausible chance of winning next year’s general election on a social-democratic platform. Polls show that roughly two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities.

It is true that the same electorate favours largely conservative positions on the Budget deficit, immigration and welfare. Yet Mr Miliband, more sensitive to public opinion than Mr Benn was and prepared to listen to the concerns of blue-collar voters, has pragmatically adjusted his party’s policies.

In his 1985 address to the Labour party conference, Neil Kinnock said: “We know that power without principle is ruthless and vicious, and hollow and sour. We know that principle without power is naive, idle sterility.”

With the death of Mr Benn, who too often enjoyed prin­ciple at the expense of power, and the diminished reputation of Mr Blair, who too often enjoyed power at the expense of principle, it is worth reflecting that the Labour Party may yet have an opportunity to achieve the right balance between the two.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.