Thursday, 18 August 2011

Labour’s riots response: wrong on tactics, wrong on strategy

It was a mere few days ago that we were praising the willingness of a reinvigorated Ed Miliband to make hard decisions. The dumping of the Shadow Cabinet elections. The explicit non-backing for an unpopular strike. Most striking of all, two occasions on which he had gone out on a limb against powerful interests – even though the endgame of both is still uncertain – his sure-footed handling of the parliamentary debate on phone-hacking, which finally had Cameron on the back foot; and his determination to adjust the representation of unions in party decision-making.

It seemed like Labour had things all sewn up for the summer recess, and we could look forward to a renewing summer break and a gentle trot into conference season, enjoying the first truly glad, confident morning of the Miliband leadership. But oh, how quickly events can intervene, dear boy.

Labour’s political response to the riots has shifted from a neutral position of non-partisan solidarity, to one which is tactically wrong. And, worse, it is strategically wrong.

The challenge of last week was carefully to carve out a political position which was distinct from the Tories’, whilst not launching into full-frontal attacks which would look like opportunism at a time when statesmanship was being called for. It was never going to be easy to navigate that fine line, but Miliband gave a decent Commons performance, backing Cameron himself while still managing to line up persistent backbench criticisms on the cuts in police budgets. On the whole, creditable.

And then it all came apart. Somehow, Ed was seemingly kidnapped and tortured on Thursday night, so that by Friday’s Today programme, the refined message started to come out as, “whilst we can’t condone the rioting, I have to say that…” and the tactical errors began.

Tactical error one. An inconsistent argument. The point is, no-one saw this coming. The best thing would be to say, “we don’t know”, and leave it at that. Because we don’t. Our response instead was “it’s complex”, so let’s not prejudge. And then to do precisely that. In other words, it may be complex; or it may be darned simple: you just don’t know which. Best advice: hold your counsel.

Tactical error two. Bashing the rich. Peter Oborne’s awful piece exemplifies the self-flagellating Zeitgeist of the middle classes over the riots. And it is careless to allow the Guardian to paraphrase your words as “I can’t excuse looting, but the rich must share the blame”(to be fair, they later changed the headline, because it wasn’t what he actually said. But what he did say was asking for trouble). The usual suspects were wheeled out, most of which were patently unconnected, like phone-hacking, MPs’ expenses and the banking crisis. Reasonable people don’t think, “a journalist hacked someone’s phone, so I’ll smash up next door’s shop”.

Tactical error three. Calling for a public inquiry: that last refuge of a politician in the face of a crisis. But it also contravenes the first law of Her Majesty’s Opposition: never call for the PM to do something specific unless you know they will have to do it anyway. It makes you look ineffectual when they don’t, and can even have the opposite effect (Ken Clarke, let’s not forget, is still in post). At time of writing, a rumoured deal on a commission, short of an inquiry and probably more of a PR exercise for the Lib Dems than anything else, may save Labour’s blushes as a half-way house. It may not.

Tactical error four. Suggesting that Labour will do its own inquiry if Cameron does not. This seems to have been a way of addressing tactical error three, but is clearly not thought through. Who will do it? How will it be funded (the party is broke, don’t forget)? How will it be seen as independent when it has the backing of only one party, and what heavyweight independent figure will want to be associated with it? Are there any precedents for such an idea that have worked? In other words, even if you get it off the ground, it can be easily dismissed by the other two parties.

Tactical error five. Blaming the last Labour government. Again. While the Tories will inevitably turn their guns on us from time to time, we need to avoid the compulsion to load the shells for them.

But these are really tactical errors, which may shortly be forgotten. What is more worrying is the strategic error of the emphasis on underlying causes.

Part of the answer to these may indeed be that there is a small section of society who are not getting the help and support they need in some way. But it may not be. It may equally be that a disturbance stemming from a tiny criminal element simply ended up snowballing into a big problem because of a serious police failure.

We. Don’t. Know.

The Economist put it best:
“The left is imploring the public to consider the underlying causes of the riots. They should be careful what they wish for. Voters might conclude that the deep-seated causes are not poverty, discrimination and austerity—the riots took place in a country whose government currently spends half of its national income—but welfare dependency, broken homes and moral nihilism.”
And if it turns out to be the case that this calls for solutions which are not traditionally left-wing ones, we will have come down on the wrong side of a very important argument. What’s more, initial evidence on public opinion indicates that, although people feel government cuts are not helping and there may be economic-related causes, they are looking for, as John Rentoul points out, “the most punitive response possible”.

So, since Friday, our position on the riots has wandered into being muddled and inconsistent. And which is strategically quite wrong, because we have fallen into the trap of most of the British media; of making hasty assumptions about causes without actually knowing the answer. We have said everything, and nothing at all.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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