Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman, who has called for the party to abstain on the government's welfare bill. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour MPs turn on Harman over welfare cuts at PLP meeting

20 MPs speak out against acting leader's call to abstain on the government's bill, with just five in favour. 

There was no disguising the divisions within Labour over welfare cuts at tonight's PLP meeting. An aide to Harriet Harman conceded that the party was badly "split" after the acting leader called on MPs to abstain on the government's welfare reform and work bill next week. I'm told that 25 MPs spoke, with just five of those supporting her position. One rebel, Andy MacDonald, declared that the two-child limit on tax credits was a regression to the days of "Mao Tse-Tung and King Herod". Labour whips expect 60-80 MPs to vote against the welfare bill in defiance of Harman's stance. As he left the meeting and was asked what he thought, Neil Kinnock replied: "Not much". 

Harman warned the gathering in Committee Room 14 that "If we oppose everything, people will not hear those things we are opposing and why". Harman recalled that Labour voted against 13 welfare bills in the last parliament but that only its rejection of the bedroom tax was noticed. While abstaining over the welfare bill, Harman said that the party would campaign against the lowering of the Employment and Support Allowance, the scrapping of maintenance grants for poor students, the abolition of child poverty targets and tax credit cuts such as the reduction in the income threshold. But to the consternation of many MPs, Labour will not oppose the two-child tax credit cap. One told me afterwards that Harman "bombed on welfare" and that there was "no consensus on the child tax credit changes". He added: "She rather limped away, saying it needed 'further consideration'". Labour has yet to decide whether it will impose a three-line whip on MPs over the proposed abstention. 

Harman's refusal to table reasoned amendments to the welfare bill, outlining the party's differences with the government, angered Frank Field, the work and pensions select committee  chai rand the former welfare reform minister, who shouted at her that Labour had to defend the "three million strivers" who faced losing £1,000 from tax credit cuts (prompting Keith Vaz to quip that he never thought he'd see the day when Harman would be "attacked from the left" by Field). One senior MP predicted that Harman would be forced to back down at tomorrow morning's shadow cabinet meeting. 

After briefings suggesting that she has overreached, and is revelling in her status as acting leader, Harman emphasised that she "never wanted to be here" and that the job she wanted was deputy prime minister. From September, she would be on the backbenches and while she wanted to make "the right decisions" now, she would not "bind the hands" of the next leader. Harman's many critics will be looking to her putative replacements for a clear commitment to pursue a different course. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage