Labour needs to remember how to make an argument

by Peter Watt

So, after five hours of heated debate the government got its way and parliament voted to limit annual increases in working-age benefits to 1%, for the next three years.

Only a handful of Lib Dems rebelled.  But put aside the rights and wrongs of the argument for the moment.  Just consider the arguments used in the first big political battle of the second half of this parliament.

To be effective an argument has to be heard, resonate, be noticed and be believable.  It critically has to be understood.   I spent much of Monday and Tuesday listening to party spokespeople making their arguments in advance of and in the aftermath of the welfare vote.  I was struck by just how hard it was for Labour to get to the point and to make their argument.  The government spokespeople on the other hand seemed to get to the point quickly.  I wonder if this is why?  When you go to the respective websites and try to get a distillation of the arguments you find:

Government argument:

“Today Labour are voting to increase benefits by more than workers’ wages.  Conservatives: standing up for hardworking people.”

Labour argument:

“Labour will today challenge the government to back its plan for a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long term unemployed as new figures from the IFS show 7 million working people will be hit by the government’s ‘strivers tax’. The new report from the IFS shows that 7 million working families will lose out under the government’s real terms cuts to tax credits and other benefits. It follows Children’s Society research which shows that a second lieutenant will lose £552 a year, a nurse could lose £424 a year and a primary school teacher could lose £424 a year.  Labour will oppose the bill and call for the government to bring in a compulsory jobs guarantee, which would give people out of work for 24 months or more a job which they would have to take up or lose their benefits.”

Remember, put aside the merits of the respective arguments, and judge them on their effectiveness.

Labour’s is complicated, multi-layered and has internal dependencies.  It relies on you to understand what very well may be a whole new lexicon – “IFS’’, “compulsory jobs guarantee”,  and “tax credits”.  Most of all, it is very, very long.  This mattered when it came to making the arguments on the airwaves.  Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps said:

“For years, the gap between those who earn and those who live on benefits has grown – and this government is restoring fairness to the system. Labour have long since forgotten that people work hard to pay their taxes and support our welfare system.  ‘Today’s vote will be an opportunity for them to join us in the fairness lobby.”

Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, said:

“It’s now clear. There’s a Labour way to bring down the welfare bill and a Tory way. The Tory way is to hijack support for working people. The Labour way is to help people work.  The Tories and their Lib Dem friends have delivered a flatling economy and rising long term unemployment which has put up the welfare bill by over £13 billion more than planned. And now they want working people to pay the bill with a strivers tax that will hit 7 million families. Yet they’re happy to give a £107,000 tax cut to 8,000 millionaires.  Tomorrow’s bill does nothing to create a single new job, fix the chaos in universal credit or the work programme which has been an utter failure. So we’ll be asking MPs to vote for real welfare reform, a compulsory jobs guarantee that will end life on welfare for the first time.”

It is obvious which the clearer argument is – and I don’t mean the right argument.  On the other hand Liam seems to be unsure exactly what the best attack is.  Is it hijacking working people; flatlining economy and rising unemployment; strivers tax; 8000 millionaires; chaotic universal credit; failed work programme; the need for real welfare reform or a compulsory jobs guarantee?  And bearing in mind that we have had weeks to prepare a line on this!  It’s almost as if we have forgotten the importance and art of making an argument.

This is likely to be one of the key debates over the coming months.  It is essentially the very early skirmishes of the 2015 election campaign.  Assuming that the Tories listen to the advice of those telling them to tone down some of their harder edged rhetoric with regards to “scroungers” then they would seem to have a powerful and simple argument that will be repeated over and over.

Labour has a political essay.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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12 Responses to “Labour needs to remember how to make an argument”

  1. john p Reid says:

    Haven’t you heard Labours way of arguing is opposing every cut (except welfare) then saying we’re backing the tory austerity spending plans

  2. LesAbbey says:

    I guess it was too much to hope that the argument would be that Labour would not hurt the poorest in society while the richest were getting Tory tax breaks. Still that would mean taking a principled stand which I doubt Liam Byrne understands. How about you Peter?

  3. swatantra says:

    Every problem needs a carrot and stick approach. What the public are thinking is :
    ‘Lets have more of the stick, and less of the carrot … as long as it doesn’t apply to me.’
    Its something Labour has to face up to, which it has avoided in the past.

  4. Londonstatto says:

    The problem Byrne has is that he knows that, to coin a phrase, there’s no money left. Maybe he’s just got enough honesty in him that he can’t make a simple but misleading argument. He should go and chat with Ed Balls to be trained…

  5. aragon says:

    Yes, the Labour leadership are crap:

    The poor are already on the breadline…

    Benefits have always been squeezed in good times and bad…

    £71.00 per week for a single adult, where is the scope for reductions …

    The cuts are poorly targeted and hit people unable to cope at present …

    It’s not hard, the leadership lack both the rhetoric and they lack the fundamental understanding of the issues, and principles from which to argue.

    It should be supported by more detailed arguments and alternative policies, but they don’t even understand the dog whistle slogans.

    Never mind the more complex issues. They should refuse to accept their opponents premise (framing of the issue), instead the Labour leadership embrace it as a starting point. And concede the argument. They are crap.

  6. McCurry says:

    The real problem is that the Tories are united on cutting the welfare bill, whilst Labour are divided on the issue. Some, like Peter, agree that it should be cut. Others argue that people only claim benefits if they are in real need. Some are like me and believe it should be cut in good times, not in a recession. The is no coherent view.

  7. bob says:

    Conservatives, simple easy to assimilate message, excellent soundbite, Labour, do you have a degree in economics to understand their diatribe.

  8. donpaskini says:

    Hi Peter,

    I just went on the Labour website, and the argument was ‘Tory policies are hitting working families. Click here to tell us the price you’ve paid’.

    This may or may not be a particularly good argument, but it is succinct.

  9. Hi Peter,

    I completely agree with you, your analysis is spot on.

    A good discipline to test whether your message is clear and concise is to see if you can fit it in the headline of a poster.

    The Tories managed to fit their argument into a poster and they felt it was so compelling, they ended up running it.

    Labour needs to relearn how to be single-minded in their communications.

  10. e says:

    I agree.

    Mission accomplished; income security removed now is the time to stop calling those who will be in want names. Become magnanimous, “charitable” towards those receiving “kindly given” but “firmly moral” privately provided “help”.

    As US citizens know well, an economy capable of delivering full employment, Job guarantees, is the counter to this model. Perhaps Labour should look to the US for simple arguments. Are! They’ve already got that covered, have they not….

  11. Robert says:

    Labour was right to vote against the 1% rise but I cringed listening to Labour spokespeople on the TV. They seem incapable of given a straightforward answer to a question. Liam Byrne should be sacked as soon as possible. Why not just say that attacking the living standards of people on benefits is wrong?

  12. Ex-Labour says:

    The article is pretty much spot on. Labour should be trainined on the “elevator speech” as our US cousins called it.

    However Labour have to answer a more fundamental question. Why are so many people who are in work recieving benefits ? The answer is that socially engineering the population via taxation has proved disasterous particularly under 13 years of Labour rule.

    The coalition has realised that instead of taking it off people to give it back using some badly devised resdistribbutive tax regime they should simply increase personal allowances and cut the benefits back.

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