How Not To Win an Election

The only way for a divided party to win an election is if the other main contender for government is even more divided. Banking on that would clearly be the strategy of an idiot. Given that, the events of Tuesday 10th January are a cause for concern. We all know that the media is ever ready to pounce as soon as the Labour leader says anything which could be construed as indicating confusion and difference within Labour. There is therefore an obvious onus on the leadership to be very careful about the coordination of how Labour’s messages are put over. Tuesday 10th was not, in that respect, a good day.

On Monday 9th January we had publicity notices telling us that Jeremy Corbyn was going to say, on Tuesday afternoon, that it was not “wedded to free movement”. This sounded welcome in that it would bring him into line without what several Shadow Cabinet colleagues (with the notable exception of Diane Abbott) have been saying on the matter. It sounded like a step towards a more unified presentation.

On Tuesday morning Jeremy Corbyn responded to Laura Kuensberg’s persistent questioning as to whether Labour was wedded to free movement or not by saying “Let’s see what comes out of the negotiations”. He explained that in his view the real problem was not immigration but the way immigration was exploited by unscrupulous employers. This suggested Labour has plan for tackling the problem without immigration controls.

Then Corbyn announced his views on a cap on top salaries. This was something for which there had apparently been no preparation and about which it seemed that his Shadow Cabinet colleagues had not been briefed, let alone involved in a discussion of the pros and cons of such a policy. Of course the media exploited and distorted what was said but it is difficult to deny they it had been offered a nugget in the form of half-baked and undiscussed ideas being promoted by the party leader.

It was in this context that an interview with Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams (DA) by Martha Carney (MC) reproduced below took place on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme on 10th January. It followed an interview with tax specialist and ex-Corbyn advisor Richard Murphy. In his interview Murphy explained why Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion of a wages cap limiting higher wages to no more than ten times the lowest wage was “unworkable”.  Richard Murphy ended by saying that Jeremy Corbyn was not listening to his economic advisers and that he needed to change tack. The interview with Debbie Abrahams followed directly after the one with Richard Murphy.

MC: So he needs to change tack.

DA: Well first of all what Jeremy said this morning was in the context of discussion around inequality and his focus was very much on that and if you think the ratio between top executives and the average earner is 129 to 1, I think he has hit on a really important issue.

MC: Which Richard Murphy did acknowledge, didn’t he?


MC: He just said that the means being suggested, the earnings cap, simply isn’t workable.

DA: Well, again, if you listen to the whole interview, what he also said was that this is in the context of our policy development programme. He did say that this was a personal view but we are focused as a party around delivering a strong economy which is based on evidence. So all the points that your previous speaker was saying is something that we would wish to take into account.

MC: You said it’s a personal view by Jeremy Corbyn. Should we deduce from that that you don’t agree with an earnings cap?

DA: I have in all of my professional life focused on inequality as a public health consultant and now in my role as an MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

MC: Sure, you’ve explained how important you think the issue is but it’s just a question of how you address it. What is your own view on the earnings cap?

DA: My only view is that we have a position where more working people are living in poverty than in our history. One in eight working people is living in poverty. Three out of four children living in poverty are from working homes and I think this is absolutely unacceptable. I can accept and agree with him about that we have to change. How we do that and whether than means, for example, we already have a high earnings pay cap for the public sector, how we do that should be based and driven on evidence.

MC: And is the evidence there at the moment for an earnings cap?

DA: Again, I’m not an economist but I think with the panel of people that Jeremy and the treasury team have got together we have a wealth of evidence that will drive that.

MC: But one of the people said that the advisers were not being listened to.

DA: Well, we haven’t concluded our policy development programme to be fair Martha. And again, if you look at the dire state of productivity which drives earnings the government has had nothing to say. Nothing to say in terms of making sure that we have a more equal society. All of their tax and spending measures have made it worse and have created an additional divide between top earners and the least wealthy. And this is completely unacceptable.

MC: I understand how passionately you feel about inequality. But it’s quite an important thing isn’t it? The leader of your party has announced that he what he wants to see is an earnings cap, you have an economic-related portfolio in the Shadow Cabinet, but you seem unable to give your support to this policy.

DA: It isn’t a policy Martha. He said it in the context of policy development. He said it should be something that we looked at and of course we should look at it. But everything we do finally say is policy driven should be based on evidence and I know that  Jeremy is committed to that as well.

MC: Let’s move on to his speech this afternoon which is on Brexit because there does seem to be a lack of clarity on that as well.

DA: He hasn’t given it yet so there can’t be a lack of clarity on something that hasn’t been given!

MC: Except that he has been giving a number of interviews himself this morning about it. He said this morning “We’re not saying that anyone could not come in” so in other words he doesn’t believe in migration controls, in his own words.

DA: Again, I think if we want to have a strong economy we need to first of all recognise the important contribution that migration makes to that economy. Two billion a year is the net plus to the economy as a result of our migrant workforce. And he also, and again I feel very strongly about this as well, is fed up with up with the vilification of migrants from some very irresponsible sections of the media and doesn’t want to go down that route. However, we need to recognise ….

MC: A number of people voted for Brexit because they were worried about levels of immigration. Do you think there should be some form of control once we leave the European Union?

DA: Again, and I would say to this, and I have said it in previous interviews as well, the vote on Brexit was about should we stay in or out of the EU people voted to leave and we accept and respect that. However, they did not vote on immigration. If we listen to some of the very excellent interviews and programmes you had on Radio 4 last week, you show that there is a very complex reason and inequality is one of the reasons people are fed up. In my area in the north of England we have not benefited from the very modest growth that we’ve had across the country. And then the threat to their jobs, we need to make sure that the irresponsible employment agencies recruiting solely from abroad are stopped and we intend to do that.

MC: Debbie Abrahams, thank you for talking to us.

Debbie Abrahams is not a fool. Also, it is not a matter of her performance standing out among political interviews as particularly poor. On the contrary her interview is what many have come to expect from politicians: a complete failure to be honest and straightforward. She knew that she was side-stepping the questions while pretending to answer them. Martha Carney was not fooled by these evasions and tried to steer her to a clear answer. More importantly, virtually no one likely to listen to such an interview would have been fooled. Debbie Abrahams’ responses were a standard exercise in political evasion. Whatever else might be said about this no one could reasonably describe it as “honest and straightforward” politics.

It has to be asked what the leader of the party is doing expressing personal opinions about key matters rather than stating party policy or describing the moves to develop such a policy? I hope that Shadow Cabinet members are made aware of how transparent the prevarications are in interviews such as the above. They should collectively decide (1) to keep their personal musings to themselves or contribute their ideas through the party’s policy process, (2) to agree to a common line on matters of high media and public interest and (3) that they should make every effort to present Labour’s views, or the lack of them, in an honest and straightforward manner and that (4) this all applies to the leader as much as any other Shadow Cabinet member. It is disturbing that it should even be necessary to say such things which are so blindingly obvious.

Just after writing the above, my attention was drawn to yet another policy gaff in the latest sequence of gaffs. A member of the Corbyn team made a statement to the press about NATO “ecalation of tensions” with respect to Estonia. This was done without consulting Nia Griffiths the Shadow Defence Secretary who made it clear that she was very angry about being by-passed in that way. It was briefings like this which many complained of when the mass Shadow Cabinet resignations took place last July. It seems that the necessity for a collegiate manner of working has still not been understood.

David Pavett

This article was first published on the Left Futures website.



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