Labour’s strategy has a high price

[Originally published on LabourList]

There have been a couple of worrying bits of news dribbling out of the Labour policy machine over the last couple of days. The first is the proposal, announced to coincide with Armed Forces Day, that Labour would make it a specific criminal offence to physically or verbally assault members of the armed forces. The second is that the head of Labour’s policy review, Jon Cruddas, has decried the reform of JSA for 18-21 year olds as ‘cynical and punitive’, and has unleashed a broader blindside against Labour’s policy process, emphatically describing the proposals of the review as double ‘parked, parked’ by the leadership. In particular, Cruddas lamented the leadership’s decision to cherry-pick the IPPR 244-page Condition of Britain report for its most heinous policy, choosing to forgo the splendour of coherence for the cheap thrill of a transient headline.

The proposal of specific legislation to punish the assault of members of the army has received a pretty good kicking across the political spectrum, and with good reason. Existing law of course already covers assault, and the sentencing guidelines have specific provisions for assaults that are specifically directed at members of the Armed Forces.

What’s most worrying about this proposal (in addition to its superfluity, the threat it poses to free speech, and its breach of equality in law) is who it’s aimed at. Although Labour has deliberately not mentioned this, the implied targets are the Muslims who oppose British involvement in the Middle East. The image that this policy intends to bring to mind is that of returning soldiers being shouted at by anti-war, Muslim protestors at Wootton Bassett. That these protestors would not be covered by any assault legislation is irrelevant. It’s sufficient for this kind of media-orientated tokenism that it presents Labour as for the army (with its white working-class links and connotations of tradition) and against the Muslim protestors, who the Daily Mail would almost certainly claim ‘hated Britain’.

The one policy that was plucked for promotion from the IPPR report was chosen with a similar aim. The reform (as always, ‘reform’ means the withdrawal or threat of withdrawal of public funding) of JSA for under-qualified 18-21 year olds, hopes to present Labour as a party that is tough on welfare. Or as Rachel Reeves despairingly hopes, even tougher than the Tories. Cruddas was right to describe this as a ‘cynical and punitive’ measure and to go even further by dismissing Labour’s strategy as the release of ‘instrumentalised, cynical nuggets of policy to chime with our focus groups and our press strategies’.

On his own part in this, Cruddas made the fairly astonishing admission that ‘interesting ideas and remedies are not going to emerge through Labour’s policy review’. That the head of this review should speak so bluntly and damningly, albeit in a semi-private setting, about his own role tells us that there is something seriously wrong with Labour’s strategy.

Cruddas’s criticism is born of a deep frustration with Labour’s determination to pursue what is thought by their strategists to be a populist agenda (fiscal conservatism, anti-immigration, anti-welfare etc.) in the hope of securing a seemingly elusive majority in 2015. These are the words of a man who has seen all of his efforts come to naught. Cruddas’s attempts to implement what he has spent years developing are clearly being rebuffed by Miliband’s strategy and press advisors. Policy is being sacrificed on the altar of electoral success – even if that means targeting Muslims and unemployed young people to grub for the 15% of ex-Labour voters that comprise Ukip’s vote share. I make no comment on the potential success of this strategy. Indeed, it might get Labour into power. But do we really want to ride a wave of welfare-hating, little-England racism into Downing Street?

On the five occasions I’ve seen Cruddas speak about the review, he has never failed to quote the Raymond Williams line that ‘to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing’. If Miliband continues to do what his strategists advise as electorally prudent rather than what is right, despair will be the only convincing option left.

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