Dancing with the Stasi

In the 2003 book Stasiland, Anna Funder documents what life was like for millions of people in East Germany, the inaptly named German Democratic Republic, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She describes how the Stasi kept control – by recruiting half a million people to spy on their neighbours or members of their own families, tapping phones and generating files on their fellow citizens that, laid upright end to end, would have formed a line 180 kilometres long.

Political dissidents were jailed. Those who attempted to leave were arrested or even shot as they crossed the border. East Germans voted by approving the only name on the ballot paper or by putting a line through it. Those who chose not to support the approved candidate – the ballot was not secret – could lose their job or be expelled from university and would come under close surveillance from the Stasi.

You might think that, whatever arguments and differences British politicians have with each other, we can all agree that nobody wants to change our open, democratic society into anything like the East Germany of that era. We have our arguments in public, we campaign for support, we win or we lose and we argue again.

Yet, in describing Ed Miliband’s superb speech to the Labour party conference, David Cameron was quoted in the Sun as having said: “He might believe in one nation but I thought it sounded more like East Germany than Great Britain.”

The Prime Minister might think this is funny. It’s unlikely he thinks it is clever. He surely doesn’t believe it. If he does, he needs to explain himself.

Ed’s not red

Here are some of the things that Miliband called for: better vocational education and more apprenticeships; a proper split between high street and casino banking; making it easier for businesses to plan for the long term; an end to rip-off pension charges. I don’t know why those things sound like East Germany to Cameron. They don’t sound like East Germany to me. A divided Germany is not the most obvious model for a onenation politician.

The last thing we need in this country is to import the worst elements of US Tea Party politics into our own. It’s dishonest, it’s fatuous and it debases our politics. We don’t need to start comparing our opponents to regimes that in reality epitomise worse evils than anything we see in Britain today, either on the mainstream left or on the mainstream right. We don’t want a politics in which offensive caricatures take the place of arguments or in which a genuine issue of conscience such as abortion becomes a party-political dividing line.

I’m sending Cameron a copy of Stasiland. I hope he reads it. Then I hope he will realise that he made a bad mistake in stooping so low as to invoke one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century in describing a contemporary, mainstream British political party. I hope the Prime Minister will reflect on what he said and take it back.

Tristram Hunt is the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Labour).

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special