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Miliband and Balls have fallen into a Tory trap, says Mehdi Hasan

Without a focused and consistent message, any political party is stuck. Voters make decisions based not on specific party policies or positions, but on larger "frames" or metaphors.

There is one word that dominates the debate over the Labour Party's economic strategy: credibility. It is a word that is much used but much misunderstood by the political and the media elite. "We're talking a lot about the need for Labour to win back credibility," says Lisa Nandy, one of Labour's sharpest new MPs, "but we're not asking who we're trying to win credibility with - the financial markets and credit rating agencies, or the public?" The interests of the latter do not always coincide with those of the former and, as Nandy points out, the latest polls show that voters believe the coalition is cutting "too much, too quickly".

Yet the Labour leadership seems to have outsourced its definition of fiscal credibility to the right. In the hands of conservative politicians and commentators, not to mention BBC journalists, credibility becomes code for austerity - ironically, at the exact moment that austerity is choking growth and driving up unemployment and borrowing across Europe.

Labour's renewed focus on credibility-as-austerity has forced some of the party's biggest hitters into all sorts of verbal slips, intellectual contortions and tactical errors. On 10 January, Miliband used his first big speech of the year to claim that "the next prime minister will still have a deficit to reduce, and will not have money to spend". This is economically illiterate: Prime Minister Miliband could choose to fund new spending by raising taxes or collecting the billions of pounds in unpaid taxes.

On 14 January, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, arch-Keynesian and architect of Labour's "too far, too fast" attacks on the coalition's cuts, seemed to go further. "My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have to keep all these cuts," Balls told the Guardian as he endorsed George Osborne's public-sector pay freeze.

Balls, who has yet to retract or modify the line, was denounced three days later by the leader of the Unite union - and ex-Miliband ally - Len McCluskey as one of "four horsemen of the austerity apocalypse" (along with his Blairite shadow cabinet colleagues Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg).

Behind the scenes, as aides briefed journalists that Balls had not renounced Labour's opposition to Tory cuts or ruled out reversing some of them in 2015, some Labour figures suggested the shadow chancellor may have gone beyond the agreed formula. "All we were supposed to say was that we will review everything when we're back in government," said a member of the shadow cabinet. A senior Labour MP who backed Balls for leader said: "Ed was trying to pacify the right, who were after his blood. He probably thinks it helps to have the unions baying for his blood instead."

It was left to Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, to try to clarify the party position in response to McCluskey's full-frontal assault. "It's simply not the case that we're accepting the government's spending cuts," she said on the BBC's Today programme. "That couldn't be further from the truth." But, given the rhetoric from Miliband and Balls on the need for "tough choices", she wasn't quite convincing. "Aren't you trying to have your cake and eat it?" the presenter Sarah Montague asked Harman. So much for a clarification.

Shifting goalposts

It's not just clarity and coherence that the party should be worried about; it's the lack of a distinct Labour narrative. Consider the recent past. The Tories obsess over the deficit; Labour tries to find a compromise position on deficit reduction ("halving the deficit over four years"). The Tories shout about the need for cuts; Labour tries to find a softer position on cuts ("too far, too fast"). The Tories announce that austerity will continue into the next parliament; Labour's response is to say that it can't guarantee it will reverse any ("all"?) of the Tory cuts.

There is a theme here - the Tories set the agenda, Labour operates within it. On the economy, in particular, the Tories have displayed extraordinary message discipline. At the start of the financial crisis in 2008/2009, they settled on a theme - that "big government" was to blame, that Labour had "overspent" and that the budget deficit threatened to "bankrupt" Britain - and have repeated it since like robots: in speeches, interviews, articles and at the des­patch box. "We're clearing up Labour's mess," goes the Tory mantra. In his resignation letter in October 2011, the outgoing defence secretary, Liam Fox, even referred to the "vital work of this government, above all in controlling the enormous budget deficit we inherited".

By defining deficit-reduction-through-austerity as responsible and unavoidable, the Tories have defined those opposed to such austerity measures as irresponsible and deluded: as "deficit deniers".

At this point, it is worth invoking George Lakoff, the Berkeley University linguistics professor who is one of the US's most influential progressive thinkers. His landmark book Don't Think of an Elephant! explains, using cognitive science, how voters make decisions based not on specific party policies or positions, but on larger "frames" or metaphors. Lakoff shows how the right has long used loaded, image-laden language and sustained repetition to exploit our unconscious minds. (The book title relates to the way you can't help but think of an elephant when you hear the word, even if you are asked not to.)

Lakoff outlines "a basic principle . . . when you are arguing against the other side: do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame - and it won't be the frame you want."

What conservatives have done, he told the New York Times in 2005, "is find ways to set their frames into words over many years and have them repeated over and over again and have everybody say it the same way and get their journalists to repeat them, until they became part of normal English". (Think Tories, austerity, deficits, deniers.)

Lakoff argues that attacking your opponents' frame - be it on deficit reduction or a cap on immigration - ends up reinforcing their message. When I mention to him the Balls line on "keeping the cuts", he groans. Loudly. "There is a view on the left that says if you take the other guy's language you can then undercut them - but it just shifts the discourse to the right," Lakoff says. Instead, progressives should "use their own language and frames".

So what should the alternative, Labour frame be? The answer is obvious: growth and jobs. In November 2011, a YouGov poll found that more voters (37 per cent) wanted the government to focus on growth, "even if this means the deficit stays longer, or gets worse", than on reducing the deficit (36 per cent), "even if this means growth remains slow". Given that You­Gov's polls show Labour leading the Conservatives by 18 points on job creation but trailing them by 22 points on deficit reduction, it seems strange to focus all the rhetoric and airtime on closing the deficit gap.
One of Miliband's chief advisers disagrees. "We have internal polls and focus groups showing people don't think Labour treats their money with respect or spends it in the right way. We have to move Labour's reputation on this issue and close the gap." He adds: "Growth is still our message, by the way."

You could have fooled me. All of the chatter since Christmas has been around cuts, austerity and "tough choices". Credibility continues to be viewed through the Tory prism; voters hear a Tory, not a Labour, world-view.

It is the wrong place, both tactically and strategically, for the opposition to be. Tactically, it hobbles the ability of an opposition party to oppose in the here and now. Strategically, it bolsters the Tories' economic frame.

If the next general election comes down to which party can best manage austerity, Labour is finished. Party strategists say that the aim is to appeal beyond the Labour base to those in the middle, who need reassurance about fiscal responsibility. Lakoff calls this "the myth of the centre". "People in the so-called centre are partly conservative, partly liberal," he says, and he argues that it is the job of progressive poli­ticians to use language that "activates" the liberal parts of their brains.

Down a dead end

Lakoff's book has been in print since 2004 and yet, he points out, progressive politicians across the west - including those in our own Labour Party - do not seem to want to understand its simple message or take its ideas on board.

“They assume the Enlightenment and reason rules," Lakoff says - "that if you just tell people facts, they'll reach the right decision." But language matters, metaphors and images matter, clear narratives and frames matter.

Most senior Labour figures I spoke to haven't read Lakoff; Miliband, despite his passion for ideas and US politics, does not own a copy of Don't Think of an Elephant!. Douglas Alexander does. So, too, does Chuka Umunna. But they are in a tiny minority - and, incidentally, Alexander is said to be one of those shadow ministers pushing for a more "credible" Labour position on deficit reduction.

The Labour Party has been going through colour-coded policy phases since the last general election. First, there was Blue Labour, with its emphasis on communities, relationships and tradition. Then there was The Purple Book, with its reassertion of Blairite values and its rhetorical assault on the "big state". Then came the pamphlet In the Black Labour, which calls for Labour to centre its economic strategy on "fiscal conservatism".

Where are we now? Are we witnessing the birth of "white flag Labour"? That is the pro­vocative title of a new report from the centre-left pressure group Compass. Its author, the economist Howard Reed, defines the phrase as a "tame surrender to the misguided economic policies currently wreaking havoc on the UK's economic and social fabric".

Senior Labour figures tell me that they have no plans to abandon their opposition to the depth and timing of Tory cuts; they are, however, intent on taking on the Tories over the deficit in order to establish their (you guessed it) "credibility". Yet, as Lakoff shows, austerity is not just an economic but a political dead end for progressives.

It's time to change the subject - and build an economic strategy in which so-called credibility revolves around the promotion of growth and creation of jobs. As the spending cuts begin to bite and Britain heads back into recession, Labour's front bench should not be fixating on austerity or the deficit, but focusing on restoring growth and employment levels.

Memo to the two Eds: read George Lakoff; don't take on the Tories on their terms; don't think of an elephant.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?