A slight whiff of panic in the air…..
It’s an odd time in the Labour Party. On the face of it we are doing ok, not in the lead in the polls but there or there abouts. Universally, we are expected to do well next May at the first serious test of public opinion at the ballot box since the formation of the Coalition. We have also enjoyed a healthy influx of new members (something that, let’s be honest, doesn’t usually happen to parties that have just been kicked out of office) and we have a new leader. All of this should make it a great time for Labour but it isn’t. A niggling feelings persists that something isn’t quite right; that we should be doing better and for some reason we are not. The sense of frustration isn’t easily traceable but it is tangible from some comrades.
In reality, that is because we are almost static; neither are we motoring forward but we are not rolling back into a catatonic state of absolute crisis. Beneath the surface serious problems exist in our narrative which are going to take time to iron out. This would be fine if we actually had five years to sort it out but we don’t. On things like the welfare issue people are depending on this Party to be an effective opposition and we are far from that. Our inability to make a coherent case on Housing Benefit is becoming vexing and costly in the war waged to win the publics favourable perception.
However, I would question whether the recent YouGov poll proves this given the clearly leading nature of the question:
The government have proposed that there should be a cap of £400 a week (around £20,000 a year) on the amount of housing benefit anyone can claim. Some people have said that these changes would be unfair on poorer people living in high rent areas like central London and would lead to tens of thousands of people losing their homes. Other people have said that it is unfair that people on benefit should be given more money to spend on rent than many people in full time work can afford.” (my emphasis)
Notice how the case that people will lose their home is presented as a claim qualified by prejudicial remarks about ‘high-rent areas’ (not mentioning the high cost of living at all in London) yet the last sentence is carefully constructed as actual fact with no qualification. Nor does it mention the fact that most Housing Benefit claimants are in work.
Our opponents are seizing on the committment in the 2010 Labour manifesto to crack-down on Housing Benefit. This is a non-issue; as has been explained countless times a Party cannot be held to pledges it has made in a losing manifesto. If it can then charge sheet against the Liberal Democrats in particular becomes very long indeed; what, for example have they done to further their early 90s committment to a Citizens Income? The charge sheet against every Party would be huge. Rightly, losing Parties are given latitude to change because they lost.
However, it damages us because it reflects badly on how totally incoherent our whole narrative is a shambles. We are losing the Housing Benefit argument for one reason and one reason alone; because we don’t have the political guts to stand up to the ‘scrounger’ demonisation of benefit claimants. Nothing is done by the Labour leadership to fight this and the kind of manipulation YouGov easily get away with in their poll. If the public buys the ‘scrounger’ line then their support for the measures against Housing Benefit becomes a cast-iron guarantee. We then lose the argument because far from actively fighting this line we actively connive in it; meanwhile, the leadership looks foolishly confused as to why people wont support it because it can’t even begin to connect the dots.
It needs to start connecting the dots….because if it doesn’t the slight whiff of panic in the air will grow much more obvious and overpowering….