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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?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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