One of the recurring justifications for the Labour Party’s drift to the right over the last – how long as it been? – twenty or thirty years has been the notion that it is only responding to the ‘concerns’ of the public and acting in accordance with what it hears. During the Miliband era, this argument was generally used to justify Labour’s increasingly strident anti-immigration rhetoric and its supine acceptance of the Coalition’s ruthless enforcement policies.
The same argument has been used in regard to the great welfare debate. On Sunday Harriet Harman told the Sunday Politics show, ‘We cannot simply say to the public you were wrong at the election. We’ve got to wake up and recognise that this was not a blip; we’ve had a serious defeat and we must listen to why.’
And yesterday the same pseudo-humble argument was used again to justify the Labour Party’s shameful decision to abstain and thereby allow the government’s vicious welfare bill to go through. Why did Harman advise her party to do this? Because it was necessary to send a message to the public that the party was ‘listening to concerns over welfare payments.’
This line of argument is striking for two reasons. Firstly, Labour only ever appears willing to respond to concerns that justify a shift to the right. And secondly, the party leadership seems all too ready to assume that because the public is concerned about something then it must have good reason to be concerned – an assumption that is often accompanied by the notion that a failure to respond to these concerns is elitist and undemocratic.
Clearly any left-of-centre political party that wants to win elections must take account of what the electorate is thinking about and find ways to address its legitimate concerns in accordance with the politics and principles that it espouses. But that doesn’t mean that the public is always right or that its concerns should be regarded as holy writ.
Two years ago, the public was worked up into a moral panic at the prospect of an ‘invasion’ by Bulgarians and Romanians, who were depicted in the tabloids as nothing but beggars and criminals. No party stood up to criticize the assumptions behind these ‘concerns’ or refute them. On the contrary, UKIP deliberately tried to inflate them, while the Coalition tried to outflank Farage by passing a new set of laws aimed at restricting ‘benefit tourism’ even though the overwhelming evidence suggested that most Bulgarians and Romanians – like most immigrants in the UK – wanted only to work.
As for Miliband, he did what you would expect him to do. He supported the Coalition’s proposals while promising to introduce measures of his own in order to ‘meet deep public concern about immigration.’ And now Labour is doing the same thing in response to the public’s ‘concerns’ on welfare. Rather than make the argument that welfare ‘scroungers’ are a tiny minority of the people on benefits, or that jobseekers allowance is an essential support for the unemployed, it chose not to oppose a bill that most of its MPs know is completely immoral.
In this way, it hopes, the public will trust it again, and hey presto! the gates to power will open once again. This is a useful and convenient gambit for politicians who regard a period in government as an essential part of their career trajectory, regardless of what it takes to get there. But it should not be the job of a political party with principles, integrity and vision to pander to every irrational, manufactured and ill-informed prejudice that the public comes up with.
Because the public can be wrong, especially when it is bombarded with a daily diet of lies and propaganda. If for example, people believe that immigrants make up 31 percent of the UK population when the reality is 13 percent, then they are wrong, and their assessments of whether the country is ‘full’ are also wrong. If people believe that jobseekers allowance constitutes the bulk of welfare payments when the reality is less than 3 percent, then they are wrong about that too.
And if the public accepts that benefits should be taken away from the disabled, that sick people should be made to work, or that children and poor and vulnerable people should be made poorer, that asylum seekers should have their child allowance reduced, then it is morally wrong too, and any social democratic party with a grain of political and moral courage would say so loudly and clearly, regardless of the political consequences.
With the honorable exception of the 48 rebels yesterday, Labour made it clear that it is not willing to do anything of the kind, and that it would rather show the public that it is ‘listening’ than make arguments that are actually worth hearing.