Ignoring the UN’s poverty report because of its “language” is government at its worst

When minsters only care about messaging, they’ve lost the argument.

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A few years ago in Westminster politics, when open revolt was less of the norm, ministers and their shadows had a trick. If something hadn’t gone particularly well for their party, and they were pushed for dissent, they would concede: “We could have communicated it better.”

Loyalists still do it now. The 2017 Tory manifesto was excellent, it just wasn’t put across properly. Labour could have done a better job of explaining its otherwise fantastic Brexit stance.

It’s a standard way of politicians pretending to oblige journalists by criticising themselves and their leadership – while actually paying their policies or actions a big compliment: “This great thing would have come across great if only we’d thought to big it up some more!”

Well Amber Rudd, the new Work & Pensions Secretary, is employing a similar tactic in her response to the UN inspector’s damning report on UK poverty. She has decried the “extraordinarily political nature” of its language, and its tone as “highly inappropriate”. Commenting on the sound of it, she’s spared herself engaging with the actual content. Clever. And utterly hollow.

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, did use punchy language – and didn’t hold back – when reporting his findings to journalists last week.

Austerity has caused people “great misery”. Gendered cuts could’ve been dreamt up by a “group of misogynists”. Ministers are “in denial”. The two-child benefit restriction is like “China’s one-child policy”. Welfare reforms are “ideological”. Aspects of Universal Credit are “problematic”, “harsh”, “unnecessary” and “gratuitous”. “The fabric of British society” is being damaged.

Strong stuff, but also – as charities, journalists and, most importantly, people on the receiving end of cuts and benefit changes, will tell you – quite obviously true.

Think tank after charity after MP after council after claimant has confirmed the cruelty of Universal Credit over the past few years. Councils are literally collapsing and public services disappearing – that’s quite difficult to miss, whether your car’s bouncing over potholes or you can no longer take your baby to the local Sure Start centre.

Alston’s language wasn’t “political”. It was true. Usually when independent officials – particularly 68-year-old white law professors – say things, they’re listened to by people who dismiss the same arguments from grassroots voices. But if even he is accused of shrill rhetoric when simply describing an evidently dire situation, the very “denial” he identified at the top of government must be even worse than he thought.

We often talk about the government’s “wilful blindness” to problems in society. Well, Rudd’s decision to focus on the UN report’s tone is more like “selective deafness”: she can’t hear what he’s saying, just how he’s saying it. And when you only care about the messaging, you’ve lost the argument.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.