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Monday, July 13, 2015 

Voters are often wrong. Politicians need to tell them so.

There is, I would argue, an extremely big difference between being exceptionally cynical about almost everything, and just straight up indulging in conspiracy theories.  Would the government really for instance suddenly declare Tunisia to be a no-go area just to distract attention from how the budget was falling apart, especially when it had been received in such raptures from the press?  Would it really decide to wreck the holidays of thousands of people on completely spurious grounds, and not come up with a better explanation than saying intelligence suggested there was a very high chance of another attack, despite there err, being no specific intelligence?  Would it really send the message that in actual fact, terrorism does pay, and that already struggling countries should buck their ideas up, despite it being you know, sort of our fault Libya is now a failed state?

Probably not, but never underestimate a government's propensity for being completely and utterly stupid.  Tunisia it seems should follow our lead: hold a few more training exercises, put a few more bollards in front of buildings to prevent a truck or car bombing, despite jihadists' major problem long having been their failure to obtain explosives in any sort of quantity, and you're laughing.  There's not much you can do to prevent an attack by a lone gunman with an assault rifle and (possibly) some grenades other than putting more armed police and security guards on the streets and increasing surveillance, policies that might in fact cause more problems than they solve, but such measures are not apparently good enough for us Brits.  Fine for the French and Germans, but not us.

Was then Harriet Harman in fact being rather sneaky in her interviews yesterday, saying the party she is temporarily leading could not oppose cuts to child tax credits and the new lower benefit cap, as to do so would be to ignore the voters who have now twice rejected that party?  Again, probably not.  It has though had the twin effects of riling up the usual people on Twitter who spent plenty of time during the election campaign complaining about that mug, and has also redirected attention onto the interminable leadership election, with yet another hustings held today.  The Liberal Democrats, incidentally, are to announce whether Tim Farron or Norman Lamb is to be the party's new leader on Thursday.  The reasoning behind Labour going for a longer contest was supposedly about confronting why the party had taken such a mauling, only for all  the candidates to have concluded why within hours of the defeat.  The "debate" since has focused on repeating those positions, and predictably there's been nastiness happening behind the scenes as a result.

You can of course if you want interpret the Tories' win as being a thumbs-up for their policies as a whole, just as if you like you can believe people voted UKIP because they wanted a referendum on EU membership, or SNP because they thought Nicola Sturgeon was a fresh, inspiring leader.  Except, oh, that last one probably is something approaching the truth.  Equally, you can take Labour's defeat however you want, and if you really want to believe it was because Labour wasn't either left-wing or right-wing enough, that's fine too.  The real lesson of the election was in fact what happened to the aforementioned Lib Dems.  The party that had previously meant all things to all people, acting as both a protest vote that wasn't entirely wasted and as a leftish alternative to Labour collapsed once everyone realised there was little to no difference between them and their coalition partner.  This doesn't mean they wouldn't be making something of a difference if they were still in government, as they almost certainly would.  They wouldn't though alter the overall tenor, just as Osborne stealing the best melodies from Labour's song book can't cover up the discordant screeching of his compositions.

The most convincing overarching reason for why Labour lost is Ed Miliband was not seen as a realistic prime minister and in turn was not trusted with the economy.  It's as simple as that.  Could Ed Miliband have been seen as a realistic prime minister and trusted with the economy had the party fought harder against the caricature of spending too much, crashing the economy and leaving behind no money?  I think so.  Then again, I still think Miliband would be a better leader than any of the 4 now on offer, and that time will prove him to be another of those best prime ministers we didn't have, so you can safely ignore me.

This is not to deny there is an awful lot of seething, if not outright detestation of benefits claimants.  If there wasn't there wouldn't be those TV shows, there wouldn't be the support for the cap which takes absolutely no account of exceptional, temporary, individual circumstances, or for little things like a family having lived for generations in an area they are now told they can't afford.  All that's seen is that figure of £20,000 or £23,000, rather than how a hefty proportion of that will be going straight to a landlord rather than for the family to spend on huge screen TVs or iPads.  Those women who apparently told Harriet Harman and the others that they didn't think they could afford to have more children while those less careful just had them anyway, which is to put about the nicest possible gloss on it, seemed to be more justifying not having more children to themselves rather than making a realistic case about the state rewarding the feckless instead of the striving.  When the cuts start affecting real people though, as we've seen with the bedroom tax, or when they specifically target children, it doesn't take much for what was once seen as sensible to begin unravelling.

Politicians cannot however tell voters they are wrong, unless it involves bombing yet another Middle Eastern country.  They can tell their own parties they're wrong, but never that the public is.  It doesn't matter how wrong the public is: whether it be the obvious lesson to take from the tube strike, which is that stronger unions and collective bargaining result in higher wages, while moaning and complaining about how because you don't want to waste time with that nonsense no one should results in nothing; or in Greece, where the people want to stay in a currency that condemns them to unending, self-defeating austerity, rather than face the temporary uncertainty of a default and return to the drachma; to argue with the apparent reached consensus is a sign of madness.

Arguing against something that has become an orthodoxy is all the harder when you're faced with a media so unutterably biased against you, it's true.  When the press either swallows its pride about Osborne's further restrictions on non-domiciled status, having denounced it as leftist lunacy when suggested by Labour, or actively welcomes policies it criticised in the harshest terms mere weeks ago, it's always going to be a struggle to win back the initiative.  This doesn't mean it can't be done.  If Labour had any sense, they would be contrasting the manifest unfairness of the raising of the threshold of inheritance tax with the losses of income those on tax credits will face under Osborne's plans.  They should be making clear how companies that already do their best to avoid corporation tax are being rewarded for doing so with a further cut while the working poor are having their benefits raided to fund it.  They should be making short YouTube videos about it, hiring billboards, running poster campaigns.

Instead, the party keeps apologising, or drawing the wrong lessons.  Andy Burnham today accepted the deficit was too high in 2007; it wasn't.  Even if it was, these cuts are being made out of choice, not because they are necessary to reduce the deficit.  Not opposing the harshest budget in a generation out of the belief it's what the public voted for is nonsensical.  Osborne thinks he has Labour trapped; Harman's response is the equivalent of jumping straight into a spiked pit.  The only people who will remember in 2020 whether Labour opposed the cuts are precisely those it cannot afford to lose.  If the party truly is existentially threatened, and the lesson from the continent is traditional centre-left parties are, the worst thing it can possibly do is tell its sympathisers and supporters they're wrong.  Take on the public, not the grassroots.  It might just work.

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