A couple of years ago, when the concept of framing was just starting to be discussed by those on the British left as a way both of understanding the challenges we face and how to fight issues on new and more fruitful turf, it was dismissed as the lunacy of “flat earthers”. It was a pipe dream that Labour could change any narrative, or move discussion away from the agenda set by the government. Instead, we must be play on the Conservatives turf and outsmart them there.
The case of the extremely successful (so far – it’s unpopularity hasn’t yet lead to it’s abolition) campaign against the Bedroom Tax shows us a true and concrete case of the value of framing and how it can be effectively used to win even the hardest of arguments. The Bedroom tax campaign has remained admirably focused on the one central issue. It has not been allowed to be swayed by the myriad of other issues that swirl around both social housing and welfare payments. It has not been taken off course in a fight between the most deserving victims – whether they be army families, the disabled or those who are struggling after their children have left home there has been a unity among campaigners which has ensured the simplicity of the unfairness of the measure is at the heart of the issue.
They have not been pulled into pointless arguments with those either embarrassingly trying to distract from the Bedroom Tax (a key tactic of Lib Dems has been to try to link it to Local Housing Allowance – quite a different measure with significantly different impacts and outcomes) or trying desperately to fight the settled frame with the awkward (and far too late) response of trying to call the measure the “Spare Room Subsidy”. Just as Thatcher’s local taxation regime in the early ’90s will never be known by any but a stalwart few as the Community Charge, nor will the Bedroom Tax be recorded in history with any other name.
Around 60% of the public believe the Bedroom Tax should be scrapped. When compared to harsher figures on just about every other welfare measure, that is an extraordinary figure. At a fringe meeting on Tuesday, I challenged Lord Ashcroft (who is generally pretty sound on polling numbers) in his assertion that voters are not behind the scrapping of the bedroom tax. He again said that swing voters were not. Now while I would like to believe that Labour have a loyal and firm vote at 60% of the public, the polling doesn’t bear me out. So some of those voters who believe the Bedroom Tax to be wrong must indeed be currently identifying Tories and Lib Dems. Or at the very least don’t knows. The precise swing voters Labour need to appeal to.
It is this popularity that scapping the measure has gained that has emboldened Labour to commit to doing so. And Ed Miliband to make doing so the dividing line between himself and David Cameron. Let us be honest, Labour are not winning the case with the general public on benefits in general. This is – in part – because Labour are not sure what it’s case is in this area. We are genuinely conflicted by competing desires – both left leaning – to pursue a full employment strategy and to alleviate instant hardship. There are few areas or decisions that can be taken on welfare that all but a few extremists (in the case of the Bedroom Tax it was Labour’s right wing, but when we introduced the notion of the jobs guarantee it was Labour’s left who were loudly outraged) support it. Which is why we continue to vacillate. Equally, Liam Byrne – despite having won around some key early skeptics – still has a tough time convincing many in the Party that his approach is not based on a fairly right wing strivers and scroungers narrative. It is perhaps a shame, as Liam has done a great deal to turn around his understanding on these issues, but for me, I would move him to a different brief and bring in a Cabinet Minister who could be better trusted to do a sales job on the communitarian, rights and responsibility agenda Labour has been shifting towards (cometh the hour, cometh Kate Green?…)
Labour and the left are in the process of proving they know how to do popular politics on their own turf. The success of the framing of the Bedroom Tax should give Labour great cheer that it is possible to win seemingly unpopular battles. Applied well and on the right issues (of which energy Bills may well be a great case in point) we are capable of moving the agenda and the electorate.