Having ruled the country for 13 years, the Labour leadership is trammelled by the misconception that they have to produce a ‘policy’ which is ‘credible’ in government’s terms … when in fact they need to be producing a strategy which is ‘credible’ for an opposition.
A basic, if underhand, trick of argument is to use obscure specialist terminology – it keeps your audience in its place when you are using words they don’t understand, and makes you look cleverer than you are.
Thus, in recent days, we have seen increasing reference to ‘triangulation’, ‘framing’ and ‘credibility’ by Labour writers.
Let’s face it, Cameron is winning the argument. The Tories have cleaned up. ‘Joe Public’ is generally convinced that Labour caused the economic crisis, that austerity is necessary, and that the welfare state is unaffordable and beset by ‘scroungers’. (And that’s before we’ve even begun to talk about immigration and justice.)
You can see this in the weekly debacle which is Prime Minister’s Questions. Whatever Ed Miliband asks, Cameron ignores the question and swats him away with a reassertion of currently-accepted assumptions.
It is for this reason that analysts such as Dan Hodges have stressed the need for ‘credibility’. At the moment, they say, Labour’s arguments are so discredited in the public’s mind that nothing we say is having any effect.
So, they say, if EVERYBODY believes that Labour caused the economic crisis, that austerity is necessary, and that the welfare state is unaffordable … let’s say so! Ed Balls’s statements last week (supported by Byrne and Murphy) about accepting the cuts were an attempt, pure and simple, to do this.
And whilst all the evidence seems to suggest that accepting the cuts has damaged Labour’s showing in the polls, the ‘realists’ (as Hodges and Painter call them) argue that until we have re-established ‘credibility’ there is no point in arguing anything else. Indeed, Dan Hodges today takes hope from the fact that – whatever the overall polls – Labour ‘credibility on the economy’ has risen five points.
For Mr Hodges, the choice is simple – accept the Black-Book right-wing reality, or stay in opposition for ever.
Winning the Argument
For most of the Party, however, a strategy which advocates little better than ‘capitulate or fail’ is unacceptable. We lose either way.
And only a fool would argue that we should go into an election advancing the same policies as the government on the matters that matter.
Consequently, attention has turned recently to ways in which we might shift the argument to grounds on which we CAN win … and this is why Labour strategists are busily discussing ‘triangulation’ and ‘framing’.
This is basically stealing your enemies’ clothes. Where a political argument is polarised (e.g. Keynesianism v monetarism etc.), what you do is steal a whole swathe of your opponents’ ideas and build them into a third, synthesis argument. In that way, your opponents find it very hard to contradict you.
Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ (between left and right) is a prime example of ‘triangulation’, as is Cameron’s moving over to criticise excessive bonuses.
The most cynical and simplistic form of ‘triangulation’ is where a politician seeks to ‘rise above’ the dirty details and tries instead to occupy the ‘higher moral ground’ – Ed Miliband’s attack on ‘predatory capitalism’ is a perfect example.
Similarly, in its way, Liam Byrne’s attempt to move from a cuts-versus-no-cuts debate and to get ‘back to Beveridge’, can also be seen as an attempt at ‘triangulation’ of the welfare debate.
Ed Balls’s attempt to integrate a fiscal-freeze into Labour’s economic policy was a particularly bungled attempt at ‘triangulation’, because most people have simply interpreted it as an outright capitulation to the Tories.
Closely linked to ‘triangulation’ is ‘framing’.
The winning side in an argument will always try to insist that you ONLY talk about matters on which they have the upper hand – that the argument is conducted (‘framed’) within their terms of reference. This forces their opponents continually to argue a case which they have already lost.
As Ursula Le Guin wrote, if all roads lead to Rome, whatever direction you are travelling, you are always on the Rome road.
One answer, of course, is to change the argument altogether. Again, Ed Miliband’s attack on ‘predatory capitalism’ and ‘vested interests’ is an attempt to reframe the economic argument. Or if you want to see a particularly brilliant example of ‘framing’, look at Mehdi Hasan’s explanation (with, of course, the benefit of hindsight) of how he would have approached welfare benefit reform.
The ‘Credibility’ of Opposition Lies in Opposing
The problem with both ‘triangulation’ and ‘framing’ is that they are – at the end of the day – simply debating tricks. And all the tricks in the world won’t do you any good when you are out-gunned.
The problem, it seems to me, is that the Labour leadership have not realised that there is a difference between ‘credibility’ when you are in government, and ‘credibility’ when you are in opposition.
When you are in government, you ARE obliged to be pragmatic. Your policy MUST ‘work’ financially and you need to have worked out how you will implement it. You are trapped in the specifications and schematics.
An opposition is not so bound. An opposition will never be asked to implement its plans – that is what made Jim Murphy’s list of defence spending decisions he would make simply ridiculous. In fact, most of the current crop of ‘what-we-would-do’ announcements by the Labour leadership fall into much the same category – pointless pipe-dreams. Ed Balls is busily defending his ‘accept-the-cuts’ policy against desperate attacks from the Unions … and all for nothing – it will ALL be irrelevant in 2015, when perhaps Mr Balls might find himself in control of the economy.
Having ruled the country for 13 years, the Labour leadership is trammelled by the misconception that they have to produce a ‘policy’ which is ‘credible’ in government’s terms … when in fact they need to be producing a strategy which is credible in opposition terms.
What does this involve?
Firstly, the task of opposition is to oppose
It is the Tories who are producing the policies. Let them. They are the government – that is their job. Our task is to find the flaws.
You don’t NEED an alternative as an opposition; if the government’s suggestions are unworkable, or evil, or damaging, then it is the government’s job to find an alternative. The task of opposition is simply to point out (constructively or destructively) the inadequacies of proposed government legislation.
At the moment, Labour is tying itself into all kinds of knots because it feels it needs to support the pay freeze, or because it agrees in principle with a benefits cap etc. And the result of this is that it is alienating all its potential supporters who are opposing the freeze and the cap etc.
But if Labour was doing its job and opposing the government’s legislation even on these issues – finding the flaws/ pointing out the damage – its popularity and ‘credibility’ would steadily grow, not because it was defining a viable alternative, but because it was forcing the government to address the failings in its own legislation. If the Labour leadership don’t know how to do this, the recent articles by Tim Leunig and Polly Toynbee are two brilliant examples.
Cameron is just LOVING ridiculing Labour’s suggestions of what we would do, so we need to set about attacking – from microscopic detail to broad principles – what HE is doing! We’ve allowed him to turn the tables on us.
Secondly, the task of opposition is to give people a vision of a preferable future
In Labour’s case, people need to be given a vision of a fairer Britain.
But there is no need to provide a pragmatic, costed plan … Cameron showed us how to deal with a government’s accusations that your plan won’t work financially – you simply say that you don’t have access to the necessary Treasury figures and that you will work out the details when you get into power.
An opposition’s vision is to the government’s what an architect's impression is to a civil engineer’s schematics. The job of an opposition is to define the PRINCIPLES by which it will govern, not the practicalities of how it will do so.
In my view, the Labour leadership is getting things wrong on both counts.
It is failing to oppose Tory legislation vigorously enough, and is thereby losing supporters and ceding its ‘opposition credibility’ to other organisations and campaigns.
And it is failing to hammer home the principles which define Labour as different to the Tories, in a fruitless bid to reclaim ‘government credibility’ from a government which has a stranglehold on the narratives of austerity and ‘scroungers’.
It is rare for an opposition to ‘win’ power. Labour under Kinnoch, for example, failed to do despite leading in the polls; at the last moment, voters simply decided to stay with the devil they knew.
At the end of the day, governments fall because the public is sick of them. In 1997, they were so desperate to get rid of the Tories that they even elected a Labour government which was promising to maintain the government’s policies for the first couple of years or so. The actual content of policies was an irrelevance – people were prepared to buy into the (very limited) suggestion that ‘things can only get better’.
The Labour leadership MUST abandon their desperate attempt to convince the public that they could administer the government sensibly IF they were in power. It is irrelevant because conjectural.
Instead, they need to reassert Labour PRINCIPLES, and then set about proving to the public just what an evil set of uncaring fascists this dreadful Tory government is.
Only if we go into the next election with the public convinced that the Tories are wicked or incompetent will we have a chance of winning over the voters.