by Rob Marchant
The weekend before last, I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the classic kids’ film of my own childhood, with my five year-old for the first time. When the famous “child catcher” scene came on, and the children were being tempted into the evil kiddy catcher’s van with sweets and lollipops, it ended with genuine, heartfelt cries of “no, noooooooo…!” as she vainly urged Jeremy and Jemima to see the danger. The bright colours and bunting suddenly fall from the van to reveal a cage, inside which the children are helplessly trapped (the point at which, as I remember, I was usually to be found hiding behind the sofa).
This last weekend, then, on seeing the media coverage of a mooted Miliband “war” on benefit cuts, the cage metaphor already seemed like déjà vu. And the Commons statement by Ed Balls, confirming that Labour will vote against the welfare bill, seemed to be accompanied by the clunk of a big door closing.
Labour does not, of course, really think that people should be allowed to “scrounge”, and there is a genuine, balanced debate to be had on how to prevent abuses and dependency while continuing to protect the vulnerable. But there is also a realpolitik argument of ensuring that your argument can be painted in primary colours. Shades of grey can and will be twisted.
The logic is not subtle. It is not about nuance. It is about how well our subtle argument will fare in the political joust against a brutal cudgel of one: that Labour is “on the side of the scroungers”. And the answer is not very well, if the relative success of the competing economic narratives – “too far, too fast” versus “Labour maxed out the credit card” – is anything to go by.
That said, it is true that we should not base big policy positions on how our opponents will paint things. If the argument is strong enough, it can still win through. But, more importantly in this case, it fails the “gut feel” test, and this is important to explain.
The question is this: are we trusted on benefits? While we had some good and progressive policies in many areas, do we genuinely feel that, during thirteen years of Labour government that benefits dependency decreased or increased?
The fact is that most of the public struggle to say they think it decreased, and while Labour certainly got more of the temporarily unemployed back into work, it also clearly entrenched a small proportion of people into a cycle of worklessness – hardly a policy triumph. And that’s before we even start on benefits abuse. So if we can’t, in our hearts, feel that confident about our record, how on earth can we expect the public and the media to do so?
And that is a problem for Labour.
Dave Talbot highlighted here at Uncut Osborne’s adoption of Brownite strategies, but it seems that his own protégés have simultaneously forgotten them. In the early days of New Labour, Brown pioneered the attack strategy which Labour followed for the best part of two decades: his now-famous “dividing lines”.
It worked well: find the issue on which you want to fight your opponent, and point up the differences between your opinion and theirs. What is vital, of course, is not just that your position is right, robust and defensible, but that the public will come down on your side of the dividing line and not theirs. If they mostly don’t, you’re toast.
When Miliband says, “we should be tough on the minority who can work and try to avoid responsibility. But there comes a moment when a government is exposed for who they are”, well, people don’t believe it. As the Americans say, “anything that comes before the ‘but’ is bullshit”. Because this is Labour speaking, a cynical public just screens out the first few words.
Meanwhile, in la-la-Labourland, Polly Toynbee manages, as ever, to miss the point spectacularly:
“[Osborne] has devised an entirely pointless welfare uprating bill that enshrines a three-year 1% benefit rise, well below inflation, that he thinks will snare Ed Miliband into seeming to side with the workshy.”
But it is not pointless, is it? It is not pointless, because it is has a clear political end. And if Osborne thought he would snare Ed Miliband, Polly, it looks like he thought exactly right.
It’s not as if this is brain surgery. The New Statesman, hardly a hotbed of right-wing boot-boy politics, talks about a trap. The ever-sensible Jacqui Smith talks about a trap. Dammit, even the campaign group’s John McDonnell MP talks about it: “instead of falling for this grubby trap,” he says, “let’s take them on”. But what he might have more accurately said is “let’s run headlong into it”, because that’s pretty much what we seem to have done.
Here are not one, but two simple, strategic errors.
The first one is that you must not fight the enemy on the terrain of their choosing, as Dan Hodges noted on Monday (not to mention Sun Tzu, over two thousand years ago).
The second is that the winning party generally stays in the middle of the squash court. John Rentoul observes that the coalition has nudged Labour towards the margins by making a daring grab for the “squeezed middle”:
“The effect of his new measures last week is to take from both the rich and the poor and to give to households in the middle of the income distribution. Thus he forced Labour into its historic stance of defending the poorest, in low-paid work and on benefits…this, however worthy, will not be a good position for the Labour party at the time of the election.”
That it will not. As of yesterday, the “benefits war” story seems no longer to be a rumour, but the position may yet be quietly dropped. We must hope so, if we believe that election-winning, rather than self-immolation, should be the objective of the final couple of years of this parliament.
If, in other words, we really do not want this to be remembered as the moment when it all started to go wrong. When we were suddenly, inexplicably left on the edge of our seats, helplessly watching the children run towards the man with the sweets.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left