Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

If voters want cruelty they are spoilt for choice

Don’t know about you, but I’m worried. It looks as though we are in danger of breaking Katwala’s Law. Roadtested at party conferences this year, this is the Sunder Katwala’s brilliant observation that – when it comes to immigration – ‘make promises you can keep’.

Look, I can buy the idea that you can charge citizens of visa waiver countries a small amount and hypothecate it to Border Force staff. (Though that is in danger of simply subscribing to the primitive notion that numbers – whether teachers, nurses, police – are what matters, and not effectiveness.) But it is easy to say and relatively easy to do.

However, I am a whole lot more sceptical about barring migrants from accessing benefits for two years. To start with, it’s pretty clear that this won’t stand a challenge in court. At its most basic, if a migrant worker does a year in a job and pays their stamps but then is made redundant any attempt to bar them from contributory benefits will be direct discrimination. If they have children then I fail to see, in this case, how they can be barred from the benefits aimed at preventing child poverty. (Or are we saying that families should be separated from parents for two years?).

What about in-work benefits? A large part of them are paid to prevent poverty. (And please don’t give me the living wage spiel. I don’t want to hear reheated, patriarchal drivel about the Family Wage). What is the legal basis – let alone moral justification – for saying that some children should live in poverty because their parents are foreigners? Again, I predict a successful legal challenge.

How about Brits living and working abroad? If this ‘two-year rule’ is a habitual residence test then it applies to them. I look forward to the first nurse returning from Australia to care for his or her elderly mother being denied benefits. Which side will we be on then? The wrong side. Just as we are now. If voters want cruelty they are spoilt for choice. If, however, they want compassion the the market is empty.

Of course, we are being buffetted by populism. The two big winners in Rochester were the United Kingdom Independence party who won the seat and the Greens – who left the Liberal Democrats for dead. (And that latter point isn’t a figure of speech – it was the worst Liberal Democrat by-election in their history. So much for their superior ground war.)

This is a huge problem. Not, as we often think because we should have a better response to populism than we have. But because we shouldn’t need to be buffetted in the first place – the right analysis and an effective strategy give you the political ballast to pursue a steady course.

Well, in a brilliant new Policy Network pamphlet The Popular Centre: How Progressives Can Beat the Populist Challenge Hopi Sen sets out to provide just such an analysis for us and for progressives in Europe. For we are not alone – there is a challenge facing us in many countries. Different in form in each, but sharing family characteristics. Hopi’s prescription is simple – but then the best solutions often are, because they are elegant. He writes:

By combining focused, concrete, limited social policy changes with a passion for reform of a failing politics and governance, it once again becomes possible to construct a popular centre capable of beating the populisms of right and left on their own terms.

How good is this pamphlet, I hear you ask. So good you should read it yourself.

No really, how good, you ask. So good I wish I had written it.

As I said, it’s in the air this whole populism business.

Douglas Alexander is making a typically thoughtful contribution tonight in a speech in Scotland called ‘Changing Times, Changing Politics’. Douglas’s argument is that we misunderstand current politics if we only look at the headlines about Ukip. We are in what he calls ‘post-crash’ politics and that that is expressing itself not as apathy or disengagement but as an active force transforming our politics. Read it alongside Hopi’s pamphlet:


John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan


Photo: David Sim

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John McTernan

is former chief of staff to the leader of the Scottish Labour party. He is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He tweets @johnmcternan


  • Please get rid of Tony Blair on your home page saying “It might be worth listening to me”. Too many people listened to him in the past and so we wound up in an illegal war with thousands of unnecessary deaths and Iraq in a worse situation than it was under Saddham Hussein. Not that I have anything good to say about him either. Put please take Tony Blair off. He really makes my stomach turn!

  • Somebody should listen to John & Hopi – in the last 4 years their contributions have been unselfish and very sound. Can the two bright lads shed more light and be more specific on the current vogue of some Labour MPs trying to out-do Ukip & the Tories for votes of racists who are magnetising towards Ukip? “Pandering to Xenophobia” is the term being used in left wing blogspots. That would be a damned shame. IF TRUE.

  • I disagree. I have the pic’ blown up and on my kitchen wall 4’x2′. I am selling them @£19 ea deliverd – 5% of nett profit as donations to the advertising fund at Labour HQ.
    Or have a referendum. ‘one wo/man’s meat is another woman’s poison’,
    There is always other reading eg, latest Ukip & SNP [joint] Guide for Xenophobes.
    [its a one page scrawled statement on the back of a (well-used) beer-mat/fag pkt].

  • I love the way you always link UKIP to the SNP no matter the topic.

    I realise it’s probably escaped your binary thought process but the SNP are a LEFT of centre party, well to the left of Labour, whilst UKIP are to the RIGHT of the Tories.

    Try to grasp this basic point – other than that, your continuance of this basic error only serves to make you look . . . a bit thick!

  • he problem is with labour mp’s,especially the islington cabal,who insulted the long time labour voters who switched to ukip in may calling them racist bigots,and ill educated.that’s labours problem.this phrase ‘progressive’ is really suggests you are better than the voters.wagging fingers,treating the labour voters as those ‘downstairs’ the just before a GE you are reaching out.sorry too late.northern heartland voters are fed up with being treated in such a saying voting ukip is only about immigration,shows you are clueless.
    you can’t buy votes just before an election.this bunch of new mp’s are the most vicious,stuck up snobs i have ever met.and to think these are labour mp’s.Progress is at the heart of hatred of the the longtime labour voters,the baby boomers,children of the war time generation won’t be won over so easily.You Work For Us.Labour under Progress is a far right party,and have no right calling themselves Labour.thornberry is the tip of the know it’s true McTernan.

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