Show Hide image

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?

Picture: David Parkin
Show Hide image

The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496