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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?

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain