WHEN Ed Miliband prefers to promote the ugly side of Little England instead of offering policies to help hard-hit Britons and vulnerable immigrants alike, Labour is in trouble.
I couldn’t have been less surprised if he’d announced a tax cut for the wealthy. Partly because, in the Budget in March, David Cameron’s government had already announced that. Through the looking-glass of Osborne-omics, the coalition made it mud-clear how more tax could be collected from the rich… by collecting less tax from the rich. Still, like any good PR man, the PM knows that the big lie repeated often enough with self-assurance begins to be believed.
He also knows when to say as little as possible. Having taken the moral high ground on the Jimmy Carr tax-avoidance story, Cameron skilfully refused to be drawn on his own family’s tax-haven history. Equally, he couldn’t bring himself to discuss the Icebreaker Management Services tax avoidance scheme – currently under investigation by HMRC – in which Tory troubadour Gary Barlow OBE is involved.
So when David Cameron begins a publicity drive targeting people on benefits, it’s hard to raise as much as a Roger Moore eyebrow. Of course, it’s the kind of ploy for which previous Conservative administrations have form – featherbedding the haves at the expense of the have-nots. But it looks more like a predictable diversionary tactic. Plan A for Austerity is so palpably not working, the government needs new scapegoats.
So now it’s not the economy, stupid, it’s those frightful poor young people. (You know, the ones who don’t vote? Especially not Conservative.) Workshy spongers, all of them.
We’re witnessing hypocrisy, not as realpolitik, but as sleight of hand. In phoney issue management, the pronouncements are not policies. That might entail employing some proper facts and actual reasoning. But, at a stroke, big round numbers and a few well-polished platitudes can plumb the depths of public prejudice and take control of the news agenda.
So you can cut the under-25s out of housing benefit without worrying about the under-25s, or house prices, or homelessness. You can ignore the rapid rise in unemployment among under-25s. You can pretend the gap between young people’s wages and affordable housing doesn’t exist. You can give the distinct impression that merely removing housing benefit from those described by the Daily Mail as “feckless youth” will transform them from a life of luxurious laziness to top-rate tax-payers.
Well, you can do this in a PR campaign – maybe – but surely not in a proper grown-up government?
The housing charity Shelter is too polite to suggest the Prime Minister might be misleading the public. As a matter of record, they simply note “only one in eight people who receive housing benefit is unemployed… The vast majority of housing benefit claimants are either pensioners, disabled people, those caring for a relative or hard-working people on low incomes.”
But despite this, it’s hard to hate David Cameron, isn’t it? He seems so harmless: his bland schoolboy face with the polished cheeks of the kid on a box of Tunnocks tea cakes. He can front any insubstantial tooth-rot he likes and who’s to challenge him?
Certainly not Ed Miliband.
It’s not the Labour leader’s fault he doesn’t look like a statesman. But it’s his tragedy that he’s starting to make the boy David look like one.
Weakly, meekly, the Labour Party leader won’t take on Cameron directly over his benefits schtick. Mealy-mouthed and lily-livered, the party sent out shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne to offer up some blandishments about youth employment and welfare reform. It seems Miliband is too scared – too convinced that the issue of benefits is a vote-loser to put up a fight.
So, now we know who will speak up for the privileged. Who will speak up for the underprivileged – for “Your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore”?
It certainly doesn’t look like Ed Miliband will.
On Friday, I was shocked and shaken by the speech he gave to think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research in London.
In time, it will become the defining moment of his brief rise in British politics. The mere concept reveals him as a man of straw; the full text as a fool.
Anyone who has read Miliband’s speech on immigration will have taken in the cheesy sycophancy, the muddled ideas, the pitiful anecdotes – and no-one will have been taken in. He can’t play to the mob on one hand, and cavil with his conscience on the other.
If you already think like this – that foreign workers are taking British jobs and depressing British wages – you’ll be voting Conservative anyway, or leaning further right, towards the neo-fascism of the BNP or English Defence League.
However, if you’re interested in proof of what he claims, you’ll notice Ed doesn’t offer any. His chicken factory story is a total turkey. With a suspicious lack of detail, Ed avers that migrants, “sleeping 19 or 20 to a house”, worked for less than minimum wage and thus suppressed the pay and employment prospects of chicken pluckers in Doncaster. But even if the instance were true, the issue isn’t immigration, it’s the illegal exploitation of vulnerable migrants.
Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest migrant workers don’t affect native employment. A major study by Jonathan Portes and Sara Lemos at the University of Leicester found “no impacts on native unemployment, either overall, or specifically for the young or low-skilled. Nor did we find any significant impact on wages.”
But the blatant disregard for the truth that would make a PR master blush isn’t really what’s unforgivable about Ed’s inept foray into Little Englander territory.
In the Broadway musical Avenue Q, there’s a song entitled Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. Sung by Muppet-like characters, it’s a hilarious, ironic plea for mutual understanding between furry creatures and furry people. In Ed’s version, which we might call “It’s Alright to Be a Bigot”, he opens the door on national mistrust, and then tries to pretend that racism can’t walk right in too.
In my lifetime, no progressive politician has ever been so foolish. Leaders must lead. Contrary to what Ed or his advisers think, this attempt to follow public prejudice makes him more than a little bit unelectable.
Miliband has watched the current government – the economic “omnishambles”, the ideological inanities and airy insouciance. He has considered the growing unfairness of our society. And his big idea is… foreigners? That’s not even good PR. As a stratagem, it’s too obvious, too lame to be a runner. Worse, for Miliband, the lack of genuine strategy, vision and ideals paints him as an intellectual cripple and political coward.
Can it really be wise – at a time when extreme right-wingers like Marine le Pen in France and Greece’s Golden Dawn party are sneaking in to the door of democracy and Anders Breivik is standing trial for killing 77 people in an anti-immigration protest in Norway – to appeal to prejudice among voters? That’s a road with a dangerous historical precedent.
Miliband’s own father – a Polish Jew born in Belgium who became a prominent Marxist thinker – arrived in the UK during the Second World War, fleeing the Nazis. Lutheran pastor Martin Neimoller famously explained how Hitler gained a stranglehold on pre-war Germany.
First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no-one left to speak out for me.
In Ed Miliband’s version, they are coming for the immigrants – forgetting that, in true genealogy, we’re all immigrants.
The crowning glory of this nation’s history is that it stood against the darkness and inhumanity that swept Europe during the Second World War. Who is Ed Miliband to sweep away with one feeble hand the memory of millions who died in defence, not just of freedom, but also of compassion? As his speech and the next election will prove, he is no-one.