Two-thirds of voters think Labour were too soft on benefits going into the election.
I don’t like it. I don’t agree with them. I don’t think it should be the aim of prospective governments to be tough on people who need money from the state. But, hell, I’m a minority on this one: 63% reckon Labour are “too soft” on welfare.
That’s not, by the way, some push-polling done to further a right wing agenda. That figure is from the post-election research carried out by the TUC. On presenting it, Frances O’Grady said that the public’s views on welfare are “very challenging”. I agree; on a lot of issues, not least on whether to vote Labour or not, it seems a great big majority of people’s views challenge my own head on.
We can try and change those views. Not let our own views be shaped by those whose votes we need to win. Or we opt to change policy, and try and move towards public opinion in a way that is still compatible with the values we hold. Both arguments have their merits, although one seems more likely to end in electoral success than the other.
We could also choose to move further away from public opinion. That argument, I’ll admit, does seem to lack merit.
Attempting to shout down people who advocate moving towards public opinion leaves me a little baffled. But that’s what happened at the hustings in Stevenage this weekend when Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall advocated lowering the benefit cap.
There were also shouts of “Shame!” as the same three candidates set out their commitment to Trident renewal. It is hardly as if there is no proper Labour Party tradition for the support of a nuclear deterrent – it has been official policy for as long as I have been alive, and had a wealth of support within the party for decades prior. There is no real precedent for that position being beyond the pale within Labour, and decrying it as shameful adds nothing to the debate the party should be having.
And that’s the crux of it, really. Before last Monday’s deadline for nominations, so much was made of the need for this contest to be a broad and genuine debate. But the thing about debates is that, at some point, you should find yourself disagreeing with someone. In fact, the wider and more ‘genuine’ a debate is, the more disagreements there should be. We got the big debate we asked for; let’s not try and close it down.
Jeremy Corbyn, as far as I know, was not heckled at the hustings. But no blame should go on him. The reason he seems to be so well liked, on a personal level, throughout the party is because he is keen on debate, and letting the arguments speak for themselves. With him in the contest, there is no need for people to shout down others – he is there precisely for the reason of those opinions being heard.
Of course, people who want to be Labour leader should be able to deal with low-level abuse of this scale. But it concerns me that we are seeing, so soon after a resounding defeat, people trying to limit what can be said about the party’s path forward. Maybe, as is supposed to be the case with the hustings in these failed target seats, the people heckling were not already Labour members.
If anything, that’s even more concerning – it would suggest the only people we’re attracting now are people even less inclined to the views of the general public.