Johann Hari: The plan to save Ed Miliband

The Labour leader isn't visible enough, his message is too often unclear – and it's not connecting with voters. If he made just three key changes, the Miliband brand could become a real winner

Johann Hari
Friday 01 April 2011 00:00 BST

I am worried about Ed Miliband. I backed him to be leader of the Labour Party. I badly want him to beat David Cameron at the next general election. But here's my problem. He has been leader of the Labour Party for six months now, and my mother, my father, my brother and my sister – all normal British people on average or lower incomes who swing between parties – haven't noticed him yet. He hasn't said or done anything that has jutted into their stressed and busy lives. They have no thoughts about him at all. And there's a more worrying postscript still. There isn't yet a single five-minute clip I could send them of Miliband where they would consistently understand what he was saying, or identify with it.

My family isn't unusual in this respect. According to the latest YouGov polling, 33 per cent of us approve of Cameron's Government and 52 per cent disapprove – a startling net approval of – 19 per cent, and that's before the most drastic cuts in generations hit. Yet in a choice between the parties, Labour is only ahead by six points – and that is largely by default. Anybody who thinks Labour simply needs to sit back, while the Tories produce a social and economic disaster, and wait for the population to defect, is historically illiterate. Throughout the 20th century, Tory governments often lost the public argument – but won the election because people thought the alternative was even worse. If Labour doesn't make itself a powerful alternative, it will lose again.

There's no reason to panic. Labour is significantly up from disastrous lows at the last election, and Miliband is not a William Hague, Michael Foot or IDS incapable of appealing to the wider public. But it is a reason for Miliband to step it up. I'm certainly not a cheerleader for any political party, and I am against putting faith in any politician. But the evidence suggests Miliband would be significantly better than Cameron and somewhat better than New Labour.

That's a gap big enough for lots of people's lives to be wrecked if he loses and lots of people's lives to be improved if he wins. So what should he do now to make sure that happens?

1. Change the way you communicate

At the moment, even when Miliband says the right thing, he is largely using the wrong words, based on a wrong theory about how to persuade people.

Let's start with the words themselves. The best research indicates the average person in Britain spends two minutes a day talking or thinking about politics. It's not because they are "thick" or "apathetic", as some people haughtily assume. They have stretched lives. They have a lot to do. When they catch snatches of politics, it has to be clear and plainly expressed. They aren't going to go away and Google the terms.

Yet Miliband speaks very often in technical language. In interviews, he will casually back up his points by referring to "the IFS", or "the OBR" – which may as well be in Xhosha click language for all it means to most people. Even if you spell out the "Institute of Fiscal Studies", you have to explain "which is a totally independent body, which fact-checks the claims of all political parties...." The most important principle in political communication is – it's not what you say that matters, it's what people hear. The best guide to this, although I say it through gritted teeth, is the book Words That Work by George W Bush's chief pollster, Frank Luntz. He's the (literally) evil genius who relabelled "drilling for oil" as "energy exploration", and "inheritance tax" as "the death tax". Luntz shows how to pare down and deploy political words better than anyone else that I know.

The key to all successful communication is to imagine yourself inside the head of the person you're talking to. Look at the world from your listener's point of view. What does what I'm saying mean to them?

For example, one of Miliband's key charges against the last Budget was – correctly – that it was "regressive". That's a technical term, meaning it took proportionately more from the poor than from the rich. It took more from a minimum-wage girl on the till at Topshop than from Philip Green. It took more from the person who checks your ticket at the football match than from Wayne Rooney. Most British people, when they understand that, are appalled. But Miliband never stopped to explain what the word "regressive" means – not practically, and not emotionally. It just sounded like he was calling it "bad" in a fancy and jargony way. So all those interviews were wasted. Almost all the people who watched literally didn't know what he was talking about.

The same goes for so many concepts. He'll give an interview about "the collapse of social mobility". Yet somebody like my mother – who is appalled that in Britain today, if you are born poor you will almost certainly die poor, and if you are born rich you will almost certainly die rich, and the chances of moving between the classes have collapsed – won't even know she agrees with him, because he didn't explain the term. He gives a speech about "the cost-of-living crisis", yet somebody like my brother – who is stressed at seeing all his bills rise and rise – won't know Miliband is talking about him. So he needs to speak in much simpler and plainer language, and assume much less pre-existing political knowledge on the part of his audience. And he needs to repeat his few simple political points again and again: at the point at which he is so bored by them that he thinks he will lapse into a coma, they might just be beginning to seep into the two minutes people allocate to this a day.

But there is a deeper problem with his communication than that – and the key can be found in the book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Westen, who is a professor of psychology and psychiatry. When Miliband talks about politics, he instinctively turns to rational persuasion first. He uses numbers and statistics and urges people to calculate what's best. But there's a problem: this isn't how our political brains work.

When a human being watches a politician speak, the parts of the brain that light up on brain scans are not the parts that control rational thought – the parts we use when, say, we're adding numbers. They are the parts that relate to emotion. They are the parts that light up in a bar when you are trying to figure out whether the man chatting you up repels you. We can wish it wasn't so, but it's pretty futile to wish away millions of years of evolution. As Westen puts it: "In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins."

Most people in the United States agreed with Al Gore's policies, but most of them voted for Bush. Watching Bush lit up the emotional centers of their brains: he knew how to communicate – falsely – that he was A Person Like You, with the same gut instincts. This doesn't mean politics should be as empty or purely manipulative. Progressive causes should be ideally suited to stir emotion – our policies really do stand up for ordinary people much more than the right's – but this too rarely comes across.

Here's an example of Miliband using the wrong approach. In an interview with John Humphrys for the Today programme last November, he wanted to articulate a really important concept – that he is going to stand up for the "squeezed middle" in Britain. But asked who they were, Miliband got into a tortured debate about which particular wage level these people have – and spent five minutes debating numbers. Anybody listening from the squeezed middle felt bemused, or bored.

What would a response that activated their emotional brains have looked like? He would have said: "The squeezed middle is everybody listening to this programme who works hard all week, but is really worried they can't pay the bills next time they fall through the letterbox." When Humphrys kept asking for more definition, Miliband should have gone straight to narrative examples: "The squeezed middle is the young dad I met in Milton Keynes this week, who works six days a week, but just had his tax credits cut by David Cameron so he's had to cancel the only holiday his family was going to get this year. It's the single mother I met in Rochdale last week who doesn't know how she's going to carry on working as a nurse now the childcare tax credit has been slashed by £1,000 a year and the Sure Start centre her daughter goes to is being shut down. I know the squeezed middle when I see it, and so does everybody else in Britain – except, it seems, David Cameron and George Osborne, who think the bankers needs our help more."

That's not emptying political discussion of content or policy. It's explaining real politics in a way that makes sense to everyone – and activates our emotions. But he keeps missing these opportunities. When David Cameron was proposing to sell off all of Britain’s trees, why didn’t Miliband head for the Forest of Dean and declare to a cheering (and probably Tory) local crowd: “Mr Cameron, don’t tear down this forest”? Why did he stay behind his dispatch box?

Miliband can do this emotional communication well when he tries. In his best speech, this February, he said: "I'd like to tell you what the promise of Britain has meant to me and my family. My dad and grandfather fled to Britain from Belgium in 1940, just as the Nazis were about to invade. They arrived with nothing. This country gave them to opportunity to build a new life. It was the opportunity to go to night school, and then university, that enabled my dad, with my mum, to build a secure and happy life for me and my brother... I am in politics because I know that promise was there for me and my family and I want it to be there for future generations." He went on to point out that the chance for other people to make that journey on and up is being taken away by this Government. We need a lot more of that – resonant, emotional stories that express a truth in a moving and personal way.

2. Champion the real middle class

It only happens for a second – but once every few months, Cameron's spin-mask slips, and his real assumptions about Britain and its class system seep out. You could see it when he said his multimillionaire aristocratic wife is "highly unconventional" because "she went to a day school". You could see it when he called himself part of "the sharp-elbowed middle class", as if being worth £30m and getting your first job by getting the Queen's equerry to call up and demand to know why they didn't let you past the interview stage is "the middle" of British society. And it was there in a recent factory visit, when he defended the trebling of university fees to the workers he met by asking: "Do you think it's right that your taxes are going to educate my children and your boss's children?"

Think about the assumptions behind that. So nobody in that factory would have kids who go to university – but irrespective of their abilities, Cameron's kids definitely will, and so will their boss's.

Against this Victorian vision, Miliband needs to defend the real middle class. The median wage in Britain in 2009 was just £20,800 a year. Half of us earned more, and half of us earned less. Forget the clichés about eating polenta and holidaying in the Amazon. The real middle in Britain is a lot closer to the anxiety and insecurity of the poor than to the gilded pleasures of the rich – and it's about to get even tougher.

A working middle-class couple with kids is going to be £4,250 worse off this year as a result of the Government's policies, according to the Resolution Foundation. They'll lose £2,750 in public services and £1,500 in benefit cuts, wage rises, and inflation. Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England and nobody's idea of a Bennite, says this is "an unprecedented assault of their living standards" and "one has to go back to the 1920s" for comparisons. It's simply a fact that Cameron, Osborne and Nick Clegg have no idea what this feels like.

The "squeezed middle" is exactly the right term. It is part of a longer historical process that began with the rise of Thatcherism. In 1976, wages made up 65 per cent of Britain's GDP. Now it's down to 55 per cent. Where did it all go? To corporate profits, and people at the very top. Since that year, 22 pence in every extra pound has gone to the richest 1 per cent. Money has been explicitly redistributed from bus drivers and shopkeepers and teachers to multimillionaires. They can see it happen, and they are seething.

It's increasingly clear that, on the part of the rich, this has been a conscious process. In an internal memo in 2006, the bankers at Citigroup boasted that government actions had "allowed the rich... [to] take an increasing share of income and wealth over the past 20 years". They proudly called this system "plutonomy" – rule by a plutocratic group of rich people – and said it would only accelerate. They were right, so far. Even though these bankers are now almost universally reviled, Cameron's policies have been to take huge amounts of money from them in "donations", and then bolster their bonuses and hand them get-out-of-tax-free cards. Miliband needs to call this what it is: a colossal rip-off of the real middle class – and a guarantee that the middle class will painfully wither if it carries on.

He can explain that we have a choice. Middle classes don't emerge and survive and thrive by accident. For most of human history, there has been no middle class. There was a small rich ruling elite, and an anxious mass far below them. As recently as 150 years ago, all land in Britain was owned by the richest 4.5 per cent – and the rest of us owned no property. This didn't change by accident, or coincidence, or inevitability. It happened as a direct result of government policy.

As the American writer Thom Hartmann puts it: "A middle class is only created and maintained by direct intervention in the marketplace by a democratic government." The government has to progressively tax the rich, significantly invest in the broader population's education and health, and tightly regulate big business. If you stop doing this – as we have, gradually, over the past 30 years – the middle class begins to haemorrhage.

Reversing this trend is essential for the economy's health. We can only grow if we have a large and growing middle. As David Madland, a researcher at the Center for American Progress, explained in his must-read essay "Growth and the Middle Class": "Politicians typically see the middle class as something to create with the gains of economic growth. The opposite is the case: the middle class is the source of economic growth." The reason is simple. A strong, confident middle class provides a stable consumer base – and that in turn drives productive investment. The wealthy, by contrast, don't consume enough to drive a modern economy. They save and speculate far more and consume far less. Only the middle class can drive the economy forward – and to do that, they need a rising income.

Think about it through an example, and it becomes clear. If I give £10,000 to Mr and Mrs Diamond living on a middle income in the Wirral, they will almost certainly spend it – on their home, their kids, or a pension plan. If I give it to Bob Diamond, head of Barclays, he won't even notice. It will become another sum in a bank account, or – more likely – it will be spent on financial speculation, which does almost nothing for the productive economy (except periodically endanger it). As a country, en masse, for 30 years, we have been giving money to the Bob Diamonds instead of Mr and Mrs Diamond, and it has badly hurt our economy. The Thatcherites (including Tony Blair) claimed to be helping the middle class, but they were, in fact, ruining them.

Miliband should rhapsodise about what real and functioning middle classes does for a society. A big middle class is vital for democracy. In 2007, the economists Alberto Chang and Mark Gradstein found that societies with a large middle class have much better governance and much more democracy – but when the middle class begins to implode, as in Britain and the US today, the rich begin to hijack the political system and make it serve only their interests.

And a big middle class is vital for entrepreneurism. Middle class parents raise their kids to value education because they know they will have to get their income from work, not from capital. Paris Hilton can be an idiot and have a great life; Paris Bloggs has to be smart to have a good life. That’s why middle class people are far more likely to be entrepreneurs – Kaufman Foundation report found 72 per cent of entrepreneurs from middle class families, even though they make up only 44 per cent of the population.

Miliband has to offer a plan to save and revive the middle class. The most crucial component is to reverse the trend towards giving more and more to the top one per cent – and instead make the rich pay more for the running of our society. Let's look at the most glaring symbol. Today, under both Labour and the Conservatives, if the middle class or small businesses try to wriggle out of tax, they go to prison. But the rich avoid and evade £120bn in taxes a year with impunity. Indeed, Cameron is firing a quarter of the tax inspectors employed to chase them down – even though they bring in £1.5m for every £50,000 they cost us.

Miliband needs a menu of policies that make the rich pay much more, so the real middle class can pay less and can catch their breath. Some of it is straightforward. To name just one, Philip Green, the sixth richest man in Britain, earned £1.5bn from British shops on British streets in 2009, and paid £0 in tax on it. A waitress paid more income tax than him. Why? If people like him want to operate here, they have to pay the membership fee for our society. However much he squeals, he can hardly physically relocate his branches of Top Shop and BHS to Bangladesh, without shutting down his own business and bankrupting himself. If Green can't afford to contribute to the running of this country, who can?

There are other inequalities that can be remedied in favour of the real middle. Today, 0.6 per cent of the British population owns 69 per cent of the land – and they are mostly the same families who owned it in the 19th century. Just 103 people own 30 per cent of the country. As Adam Smith argued when he proposed a land tax, this isn't productive wealth: it's overwhelmingly unearned and useless, so there is no reduction in economic activity if we go after it. And it can't be moved abroad. Let the Duke of Everywheresville try to relocate his acres to Jersey and see how far he gets. Let Cameron defend the talentless land-owning class he knows so well, if he dared.

There's an encouraging sign that Miliband's policies are already getting closer to serving the middle and further from serving the rich than New Labour's. It was almost unreported, but late last year Miliband honourably blocked peerages for three donors who have pumped money into the Labour Party, including private equity king Nigel Doughty, and Sir Ronald Cohen. (Doughty complained he had been "led up the garden path".) Other mega-rich donors like Lord Sainsbury have walked away from the party – presumably because it is no longer a vessel for their class interests.

Yes, it's true if Miliband champions the real middle class and the poor he will be ruthlessly demonised. The super-rich are few, but they control our means of talking to each other – the media – and the likes of Rupert Murdoch are very skillful at presenting anybody who opposes his interests as ridiculous. But you shouldn't be in progressive politics if you're not up for this fight.

And there's no contradiction between championing the real middle and championing Britain's poor. They are much closer to each other – in income and interests – than they are to Roman Abramovich, Murdoch or Green, and all through history, the middle class has supported stronger protections for the poor when it doesn't feel under siege and under attack itself. To serve both groups, Miliband needs a better economic strategy – and there is one being scripted for him by arguably the most distinguished economist in the world.

3. The word that changes the debate: stimulus

When Miliband is asked what his alternative to Cameronism is, his answer is disconcertingly flat – cut slower, cut gentler, cut less. This can easily sound to many people as if he is saying Cameron's analysis is basically right, he's just pursing it too enthusiastically. A majority of people already agree with Miliband's position – YouGov found 53 per cent of us think it is going too fast, compared with just 30 per cent who think he's got it right and six per cent who want it faster. In addition, 56 per cent think it is being done unfairly. This shouldn't be dismissed as a negligible difference. Even if he holds to this line, Miliband's way is considerably better: a slower, gentler cut poses less risk of pushing us into a double-dip, and will keep markedly more people in their jobs and their homes.

But there is a much better option still – one that offers real hope, rather than a gentler bleed – and it hasn't yet been put to the British people. To understand it, you have to turn to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. He is one of the few economists who has consistently been proven right, before and after the crash, in both his warnings and his predictions. He is part of a much wider school, with a remarkable history of getting economics right. Until the 1930s, the view Cameron is pushing was regarded as common sense. If the economy goes into recession, the government has to cut back its spending, batten down its hatches and wait for the economic bad weather to pass. But then John Maynard Keynes showed that this causes unnecessary suffering – and there is in fact a way to drastically shorten recessions.

Barack Obama explained how in 2008, in simple English: "Economists on both the left and right agree that the last thing a government should do in the middle of a recession is to cut back on spending. You see, when this recession began, many families sat around their kitchen table and tried to figure out where they could cut back. That is a completely responsible and understandable reaction. But if every family in America cuts back, then no one is spending any money, which means there are more layoffs and the economy gets even worse. That's why the government has to step in and temporarily boost spending in order to stimulate demand."

This isn't hard to grasp. Keynes called it "the paradox of thrift" – when the people spend less, the government has to spend more. It works. In the Great Depression, every year President Roosevelt unleashed a big stimulus, the economy grew and unemployment fell. In 1936, when he turned off the stimulus and started cutting, they came back with a vengeance. It was only the massive debt-funded spending of the Second World War that finally finished the Depression off.

Similarly, in this recession, the countries with the biggest stimulus packages – like South Korea – have recovered fastest, while the countries with the biggest cuts, like Ireland, have suffered the worst collapses. Krugman said that by adopting the Irish medicine, Cameron would see the same withering here – and so it came to pass. He warns Cameron's strategy won't even actually achieve its goal of cutting the deficit: any savings achieved by cuts will be offset by lower economic growth.

So what do Krugman and other Nobel Prize-winning economists, like Joseph Stiglitz, argue we should do now? He makes the case we should have a fiscal stimulus – instead of cutting, we should spend more to get the economy moving. We can afford to do it: our national debt has been higher for 200 of the past 250 years, it is around the middle of developed international league tables, and we can borrow at very low rates – so we can run a deficit for several years if it gets us out of this hole.

How would it do that? Imagine, for example, the Government launches a big program to construct the new homes we desperately need. That unleashes a great ripple of energy and activity all through the economy – it employs huge numbers of people who then spend their money, employing huge numbers more people, and on and on. It's called "the multiplier effect". Instead of squandering money keeping people on the dole sinking into despair, we spend money reviving the economy by building up assets we'll value for generations. You then pay off the debt in the good times, when we are growing again – just as the US painlessly paid down a far bigger build-up than ours in the post-stimulus boom of the 1950s.

This one word – stimulus – transforms the political debate. It shifts the onus from Labour – "what would you cut then?" – to the Tories: "How will you stimulate the economy?" It changes the dominant metaphor governing the debate about the economy. The Tory metaphor is of a household that has maxed out its credit cards and can't afford any more. The Keynesian metaphor is of a driver whose car has stuttered to a halt – so you need to take out the jump leads to get it moving again. The question becomes: why is Cameron so callously leaving the jump leads in Britain's boot?

Instead of saying to all the people being shut down and shut out by this recession "I feel your pain, and I would have done it slower", Miliband could say: "I wouldn't do this. I would get the economy moving again – in exactly the way the last Great Depression was successfully beaten."

This seems to me to be an argument that is more politically powerful, and it is backed by the most astute and prestigious economists in the world. So why has it been heard so rarely in British politics? It's true Ed Balls boldly made the case during the leadership campaign, but since then he has been locked into the "cut slower" chorus. Miliband clearly thinks it is easier to argue for a slower, softer version of the macho consensus among the politico-media class, rather than to challenge the consensus entirely. But this challenge contains fact and reason and hope – which are powerful allies.

This fight against Cameronism is winnable. The British people have a real but unfocused sense of betrayal and fury, and they are going to get angrier over the next few years. The Government's agenda is fundamentally unpopular. It will hurt a majority of the population. It only got 36 per cent support at the last election, when it was sugar-coated, and when the alternative was Gordon Brown. But to win, Miliband is going to have to use the political skills he possesses much more assertively. This isn't a seminar. It's a knife fight. If he is going to attract the attention of people like my family, and win their support, he needs a sharper blade – and fast.

My reading list for Ed Miliband

'Words That Work: It's Not What You say, It's What People Hear' by Frank Luntz

'The Political Brain' by Drew Westen

'Screwed: The Undeclared War against the Middle Class' by Thom Hartmann

'The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money' by John Maynard Keynes

'The Return of Depression Economics and the Great Crash of 2008' by Paul Krugman

'Politics and the English Language' by George Orwell

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