Arsenal shouldn’t embrace Luis Suárez, however desperate we are for success | Jonathan Freedland

Eight long years without a trophy has left too many fans willing to turn a blind eye to proven racism

If you're not a football fan, don't give in to the temptation to give this one a miss. It's a story that is only partly about football and rather more about racism and what people do about it on those rare occasions when taking a stand on an apparently public issue exacts what feels like a personal price.

The issue in question relates to the proposed purchase by Arsenal football club of Luis Suárez. If you're not a regular reader of the sports pages, you might have missed it, so here's the context. Arsenal are a great club that have not won anything in eight years. Their supporters – and I count myself among them – are hungry, some would say desperate, for success. This summer the club's top brass encouraged them to believe that, finally, the manager would spend big, buying in the world-class striker the team so clearly needs. Each day, they would check the online rumour mill to see which international star was about to come to the Emirates stadium.

Then came word that Arsenal's top target was Liverpool's Suárez. That he is a huge talent, no one doubts. But he comes with what black Arsenal blogger Iron Man calls a Heathrow carousel's worth of baggage. Specifically, he ended the last season with a 10-match ban for biting one opponent – having earlier been banned for hurling racist abuse at another. The official report into that episode found that Suárez explained to Manchester United's Patrice Evra that he had kicked him "because you are black", later adding: "I don't speak to blacks."

This record has left Arsenal fans with what feels like a sharp dilemma. They would dearly love to see a player of Suárez's ability in an Arsenal shirt. But they don't want to have to cheer, and regard as one of their own, a man capable of proven racism. They have long believed – indeed it has been a source of comfort during the long, trophyless years – that Arsenal, and its manager Arsène Wenger, are somehow better than that, that they stand for an ethos and a set of values that sets them apart from some of their rivals. Adding Suárez to the team would expose that pride as a delusion.

Some of the most hardcore fans have come out against the mooted transfer. "Please Arsène, don't sign Luis Suárez," wrote @gunnerblog. Iron Man wrote an impassioned plea for his club to think again, fearing that if the move went ahead it would mean: "The fact that he offended an entire race means nothing as long as he plays football well."

The debate currently raging has become bitter. The widely read @arseblog, who has posted daily on the club for the best part of a decade, says "objection to the signing of Suárez has led to some of the most virulent abuse I've ever received in all the years of Arseblog". For my own part, I've been struck by the pragmatism of friends and fellow supporters who I'd assumed would be utterly intolerant of a man associated with such intolerance. "Everyone deserves a second chance," one tells me. "If anyone can tame Suárez, it's Wenger," says another. "It was the heat of the moment," says a third.

I accept that I'm fairly new to this game: I wrote recently of my conversion, late in life, to football, thanks to my devoted Gooner sons. I also understand that tribal loyalty runs very deep: even the loudest anti-Suárez agitator is never going to walk away from Arsenal over this.

But the response has been a revelation all the same. It suggests that it's easy to be outraged by racism – until such outrage comes at a cost. That the mind is capable of coming up with all kinds of doublethink when two desires clash: in this case, the need to believe one is an anti-racist and the urge to see one's team flourish. And that when staring a hard fact in the face means giving up something you want, even the most enlightened folk will often turn a blind eye.


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Ani Yonatan. Efshar l’azor li?*

Several years ago I did a Jewish event alongside Michael Gove. It was clear whose views the audience preferred. Courteous, witty and as hawkish as they were on Israel, he was the son-in-law of their dreams (apart from the obvious drawback).

So it came as a particular blow to Anglo-Jewry when earlier this year Gove’s department of education proposed http://www.thejc.com/community/community-life/103155/gove-stands-decisio... that primary schools be required to teach one of a list of seven approved foreign languages – a list that did not include Hebrew. Some hyperventilating critics instantly denounced Gove for “banning the teaching of Hebrew.” He wasn’t. But he was making it very hard. Jewish primary schools, already pressed to squeeze in Jewish studies alongside everything else, would now have to find time for both Hebrew and, say, French. It would, said some heads, have made the teaching of Hebrew all but impossible.

Now Gove has sensibly dropped the idea, a u-turn http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/109335/government-u-turn-primary-schoo... for which the Jewish community deserves credit: it made its case firmly and won the day. The danger, however, is that we now relax, satisfied that the battle for Hebrew has been won. In fact, we are losing the battle for Hebrew and the enemy is not the government but ourselves.

The quality of Hebrew literacy among non-Israeli Jews in our community is poor to non-existent. Rare indeed is the British Jew fluent in the language. (I can get by, but no more.) It’s true that, in the past, only one in ten of us went to Jewish schools – but even among those, not many came out able to speak the language. And what about the rest, who spent endless Sunday mornings at cheder? That's our word for Hebrew classes, but they were anything but. Sure, lots of us can read the letters and make the right sounds when faced with a prayer book. But we don’t call those who can read French out loud – but can't understand a word of what they’re saying – French-speakers. This is no different.

Today things should be better. An estimated seven in ten Jewish kids now go to Jewish schools. But I encounter young people, otherwise academically accomplished, who have sat through school Hebrew lessons for more than a decade and yet still cannot string a conversational sentence together.

There is not some hidden code in the language, rendering it indecipherable to all but those born in the land of Israel. On the contrary, if you meet someone who went to a Jewish school in the US or France or South Africa, you are rapidly humbled by their ability to converse in Hebrew. It’s British Jews who lag behind.

What’s required is a community-wide effort to find out what those other communities are doing right and what we are doing wrong. Some say the answer is immersion, enveloping pupils in Hebrew for afternoons or mornings at a time, studying, say, maths or geography in the language rather than confining it to those lessons labelled ‘Hebrew.’ Given the number of Israelis now living in this country, there must be at least a few dozen who could be hired to teach science or art in their mother tongue.

Why does it matter? Listen to the American intellectual Leon http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/.premium-1.529801 Wieseltier, whose Hebrew is fluent. “The Jew’s homeland is not only soil, it is the language," he says. "We are more than a tribe; we are a civilization, and a civilization has language.”

To listen to our fellow Jews, from the past and around the world, we need to speak the language of the Jews. Michael Gove will not stand in our way. Now it’s up to us.

From the archive: a portrait of Michael Foot, a lesson for Labour | Jonathan Freedland

Michael Foot, the late former Labour party leader, would have been 100 today. This article was published in the Guardian to mark his 85th birthday

A hundred years ago today, another baby was born who would go on to live a remarkable life. Michael Foot was at the heart of the defining debates of the 20th century – whether against fascism, nuclear weapons or, as leader of the Labour party, the first wave of Thatcherism. He was perhaps the outstanding orator and parliamentarian of his era, a distinguished journalist and master essayist. To mark what would have been his 100th birthday, here is the piece I wrote for his 85th in 1998, back when the New Labour government was still new.

Michael Foot is about to have the last laugh. Tomorrow he will celebrate his 85th birthday, looking forward to what might be a final act of defiance – a marvellous little joke at the expense of his critics.

Next Wednesday, at the Speaker's House, assorted grandees of British politics will gather for the unveiling of a new portrait of Foot, the man who led the Labour party when, as Tony Blair says, it was incapable of being led. As the curtain draws back, there should be a sudden gasp of recognition, then a snigger – followed, I hope, by a warm round of applause. For Foot is shown standing on one of the grand mountain tops of Tredegar, surveying the Welsh constituency he inherited from Aneurin Bevan, wearing a green overcoat. And not just any coat – but That Coat, the one derided as a "donkey jacket" when Foot wore it at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, 1981.

His enemies said it was a disgrace, the leader of the opposition looking like an "out-of-work navvy" on such a solemn occasion. Pictures of the white-haired, grand old man of British socialism laying a wreath in that coat would be shown again and again, resurfacing as one of the defining images of Foot's ill-fated stewardship of the Labour party.

Most politicians would have incinerated the garment years ago, hoping to rid themselves of its associations. But here's Foot – journalist, scholar and lifelong radical, a man whose life and career has spanned the key events of the 20th century – standing in his Hampstead garden on a fine summer's evening, bowing to the combined pressure of his wife and a visiting reporter and agreeing to put it on once more.

It's hard to imagine a less pompous, less vain, more modest man. Even now, aged 85, his humour is impish and self-deprecating. He explains that he has a soft spot for Blair, a man whose talent he spotted back in 1982. "My view is that anybody who joined the Labour party at the time I was leader can't be accused of being an opportunist," he says, a smile in his voice.

The cadences are still the same, the sharp breaths between clauses, the sudden upward soaring of the sentence, ensuring the last word ends on a high note. He still travels by bus, still follows the news, still reads and writes – in longhand. His left eye is all but ravaged now, the veins on his head purple and visible, and when he inscribes a book he holds the page close to his face. But his wit is as sharp as ever and his spirit still fired with optimism. His latest project is a book on the cause he has championed his entire life: the Bomb. Rather brilliantly, it's called Dr Strangelove, I Presume.

It's good that he is to be recognised with a Commons unveiling. There had been talk that the government was keeping its distance from the man who put the old into Old Labour. In fact, Foot has been treated graciously. He was invited to lunch at Chequers just last weekend: he couldn't make it because he and Jill Craigie, his wife of nearly 50 years, were celebrating his birthday with a trip to Paris. They have been to No 10 once since the election, for a party – on the night of the lone parents' revolt.

He says he would have voted with the rebels on that: "A dreadful business." But he advises the government not to fear such dissent, whether it comes from the backbenches, the Guardian or the Observer. Constructive criticism can "very often rescue them from their mistakes".

For his own part, though, Foot is a loyalist. "I don't think past Labour leaders should use their influence to injure the prospect of the present ones." He wants so badly for this government to do well, applauding last week's payout for the NHS – whose 50th anniversary he's been marking with speeches across the country.

He has some misgivings, of course. Jill believes Blair worked "magic" in Northern Ireland where he showed "an iron will". Michael agrees, but whispers that he voted for John Prescott in the 1994 leadership contest. ("I think he's a fine chap.")

He's troubled by rumours that the cabinet convenes for the most cursory meetings, with little or no discussion. "If they're not having proper arguments in the cabinet, that's a big mistake." As befits a scholar of Hazlitt, Paine and Byron, his abiding concern is the free airing of ideas – and a good row.

Above all, Foot worries that today's Labour leadership is becoming a stranger to its past. "The greatest deficiencies arise from their failure to understand or appreciate the history of the party. The history of the party is very great, you see. At the most critical moments in the century, the Labour party saved the country."

And he should know. Foot was active in politics when the issue of the day was appeasement. He was a leader writer on Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard, dined round the magnate's table with Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan and HG Wells. He was elected in 1945, in the cabinet under Wilson and Callaghan. He has been both a player and an observer of the entire century.

Today's Labour party can learn from all that. They can admire the integrity which has led Foot, uniquely among Labour politicians of his generation, to stay out of the unelected House of Lords. They can respect the candour with which he admits he wasn't "much good" as Labour leader and that he "wrecked the lives" of the MPs who lost their seats. They can learn from the humanity that makes him say his greatest regret of the 1983 defeat was not his own public humiliation but the sight of trusted old friends and colleagues left "down and out … and broke". And they can also recall that, long before New Labour, it was Foot who first brought order to the party – launching the "war against militant".

It is a grand life, powered by what Foot once called "the red flame of socialist courage". Labour should show some of that now, loudly declaring that it is proud of Foot and its own history. That would be a fitting way to say happy birthday.

• Details of the campaign to fund a lasting memorial to Michael Foot can be found here


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From the archive: a portrait of Michael Foot, a lesson for Labour | Jonathan Freedland

Michael Foot, the late former Labour party leader, would have been 100 today. This article was published in the Guardian the day after he resigned on 22 November 1990

A hundred years ago today, another baby was born who would go on to live a remarkable life. Michael Foot was at the heart of the defining debates of the 20th century – whether against fascism, nuclear weapons or, as leader of the Labour party, the first wave of Thatcherism. He was perhaps the outstanding orator and parliamentarian of his era, a distinguished journalist and master essayist. To mark what would have been his 100th birthday, here is the piece I wrote for his 85th in 1998, back when the New Labour government was still new.

Michael Foot is about to have the last laugh. Tomorrow he will celebrate his 85th birthday, looking forward to what might be a final act of defiance – a marvellous little joke at the expense of his critics.

Next Wednesday, at the Speaker's House, assorted grandees of British politics will gather for the unveiling of a new portrait of Foot, the man who led the Labour party when, as Tony Blair says, it was incapable of being led. As the curtain draws back, there should be a sudden gasp of recognition, then a snigger – followed, I hope, by a warm round of applause. For Foot is shown standing on one of the grand mountain tops of Tredegar, surveying the Welsh constituency he inherited from Aneurin Bevan, wearing a green overcoat. And not just any coat – but That Coat, the one derided as a "donkey jacket" when Foot wore it at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, 1981.

His enemies said it was a disgrace, the leader of the opposition looking like an "out-of-work navvy" on such a solemn occasion. Pictures of the white-haired, grand old man of British socialism laying a wreath in that coat would be shown again and again, resurfacing as one of the defining images of Foot's ill-fated stewardship of the Labour party.

Most politicians would have incinerated the garment years ago, hoping to rid themselves of its associations. But here's Foot – journalist, scholar and lifelong radical, a man whose life and career has spanned the key events of the 20th century – standing in his Hampstead garden on a fine summer's evening, bowing to the combined pressure of his wife and a visiting reporter and agreeing to put it on once more.

It's hard to imagine a less pompous, less vain, more modest man. Even now, aged 85, his humour is impish and self-deprecating. He explains that he has a soft spot for Blair, a man whose talent he spotted back in 1982. "My view is that anybody who joined the Labour party at the time I was leader can't be accused of being an opportunist," he says, a smile in his voice.

The cadences are still the same, the sharp breaths between clauses, the sudden upward soaring of the sentence, ensuring the last word ends on a high note. He still travels by bus, still follows the news, still reads and writes – in longhand. His left eye is all but ravaged now, the veins on his head purple and visible, and when he inscribes a book he holds the page close to his face. But his wit is as sharp as ever and his spirit still fired with optimism. His latest project is a book on the cause he has championed his entire life: the Bomb. Rather brilliantly, it's called Dr Strangelove, I Presume.

It's good that he is to be recognised with a Commons unveiling. There had been talk that the government was keeping its distance from the man who put the old into Old Labour. In fact, Foot has been treated graciously. He was invited to lunch at Chequers just last weekend: he couldn't make it because he and Jill Craigie, his wife of nearly 50 years, were celebrating his birthday with a trip to Paris. They have been to No 10 once since the election, for a party – on the night of the lone parents' revolt.

He says he would have voted with the rebels on that: "A dreadful business." But he advises the government not to fear such dissent, whether it comes from the backbenches, the Guardian or the Observer. Constructive criticism can "very often rescue them from their mistakes".

For his own part, though, Foot is a loyalist. "I don't think past Labour leaders should use their influence to injure the prospect of the present ones." He wants so badly for this government to do well, applauding last week's payout for the NHS – whose 50th anniversary he's been marking with speeches across the country.

He has some misgivings, of course. Jill believes Blair worked "magic" in Northern Ireland where he showed "an iron will". Michael agrees, but whispers that he voted for John Prescott in the 1994 leadership contest. ("I think he's a fine chap.")

He's troubled by rumours that the cabinet convenes for the most cursory meetings, with little or no discussion. "If they're not having proper arguments in the cabinet, that's a big mistake." As befits a scholar of Hazlitt, Paine and Byron, his abiding concern is the free airing of ideas – and a good row.

Above all, Foot worries that today's Labour leadership is becoming a stranger to its past. "The greatest deficiencies arise from their failure to understand or appreciate the history of the party. The history of the party is very great, you see. At the most critical moments in the century, the Labour party saved the country."

And he should know. Foot was active in politics when the issue of the day was appeasement. He was a leader writer on Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard, dined round the magnate's table with Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan and HG Wells. He was elected in 1945, in the cabinet under Wilson and Callaghan. He has been both a player and an observer of the entire century.

Today's Labour party can learn from all that. They can admire the integrity which has led Foot, uniquely among Labour politicians of his generation, to stay out of the unelected House of Lords. They can respect the candour with which he admits he wasn't "much good" as Labour leader and that he "wrecked the lives" of the MPs who lost their seats. They can learn from the humanity that makes him say his greatest regret of the 1983 defeat was not his own public humiliation but the sight of trusted old friends and colleagues left "down and out … and broke". And they can also recall that, long before New Labour, it was Foot who first brought order to the party – launching the "war against militant".

It is a grand life, powered by what Foot once called "the red flame of socialist courage". Labour should show some of that now, loudly declaring that it is proud of Foot and its own history. That would be a fitting way to say happy birthday.


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This summer Labour cannot rest – or it may lose the battle | Jonathan Freedland

As the Tories break up on a hog-fuelled high, Labour is full of woe. Three years on, why is it still on the defensive?

Among the Tory tribe it's all hog roasts and summer suits. They broke up for the holidays in a sunny mood, cheered by a combative end-of-term Commons performance from David Cameron and the sense that, along with the weather, their fortunes are finally lifting. The way they see it, they battled through a spring that felt like winter and at last they're getting their reward.

That confidence begins with some encouraging economic numbers, including this week's fall in unemployment as well as a welcome fall in crime and the long-delayed exit of Abu Qatada. It's helped by polls showing Labour's lead in the beatable single digits or even, according to the Guardian/ICM survey, reduced to zero. And it is nurtured by the pep talks of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign guru currently credited with honing the Tory message, tilting it in a populist – and rightward – direction and removing anything that might get in the way of its singular focus on immigration, welfare and Labour weakness. Stripping the barnacles off the boat, he calls it – and plenty on the Tory backbenches believe this new, streamlined vessel might just take them to victory, or at least power, in 2015.

Some of this is July fever, a feelgood factor boosted by the Westminster party circuit going alfresco – including that Downing Street porkfest for Tory MPs hosted by the PM. But there is substance too. Crosby does seem to have brought a unity rare just a couple of months ago, when Tories were slashing each other's wrists over dismal local election results and the rise of Ukip. Whatever their differences, they can all agree on naked aggression directed at Labour. The Tories' biggest current worry, a cabinet minister told the FT, is that they might get over-excited, turning from "irrational depression to … irrational exuberance".

Of course, the flipside of this Tory cheer is Labour woe. They end the parliamentary season in a state of humid angst. Even those who dismiss the ICM poll as rogue know their lead is anaemic. With less than two years to go, Labour finds itself perennially on the defensive. This week it was Andy Burnham, called to account for his record as health secretary after the Tories wilfully distorted the Keogh report into those hospitals that had failed or worse. Last week it was Ed Miliband, browbeaten into proposing a change to Labour's union funding arrangements. In recent months, the leader has been pushed into making speeches on both immigration and welfare in order to head off attacks that, Labour feared, were beginning to bite.

It doesn't help that the Tories are backed in these assaults by a rightwing media, much of which have recently rediscovered their message discipline. Or that coalition politics leaves Labour forever on the wrong end of a battle of two against one. Labour is grappling with the fate every candidate or political party dreads: not defining itself, but being defined.

Part of this comes with the territory of opposition, a reactive business by definition. But part of it is blamed on Miliband himself. One figure close to the top reports that the leader "consults everyone but listens to no one", complaining of a strategic indecisiveness reminiscent of Gordon Brown: "It's just a state of constant frustration: no one knows how to get a decision made."

But the problem surely goes deeper than mere leadership style. It's that Labour still spends too much of its time dealing with aspects of its past – attempting to shake off a reputation as wasteful of the nation's money or a soft touch to newcomers and benefit recipients – that it should have dealt with long ago. Three years on, Miliband is still either defending or repudiating aspects of Labour's record in government. It's the price he pays for not having had a reckoning with the Labour legacy much earlier, publicly spelling out what aspects of the Blair-Brown inheritance he aimed to jettison and what he wanted to keep, honour and extend. Instead, each shift has come gradually, sometimes – as on welfare or immigration – as if dragged out of him under duress.

So voters are clear that Miliband believes the Iraq war was a mistake, but what about the rest? Do they know where Labour stands on, say, education? Is the party in favour of free schools and academies, started under Blair, or against them? And why was the most cogent voice against Michael Gove's now-dropped history curriculum Professor Richard Evans rather than the Labour front bench? Naturally, the leadership don't recognise this picture. One senior shadow cabinet member insists that no party just ejected from government could dispense with its past so rapidly. It takes time. Tony Blair, he notes, became leader 15 years after Labour had last been in power, which made dealing with Labour's legacy much easier. "That was never our luxury. We're trying to do this in one parliament."

And what might look like defensiveness is born of a strategy, he insists. Neutralise the potential negatives – immigration, welfare, Europe – now, leaving the path clear to a 2015 battle on terms more favourable to Labour. Central will be the economy. For all the government's hopeful, green-shoots talk now, the recovery is still ultra-fragile. After three flatlined years, most people's standard of living has taken a hit: Ed Balls reckons 2015 might be the first time in the postwar era that a parliament ends leaving a majority of Britons worse off in absolute terms than they were at the start. Allied to it will be fairness, as changes such as the bedroom tax begin to hurt and with focus groups consistently viewing Cameron and George Osborne as on the side of the rich few, rather than the squeezed many.

As Labour sees it, this is the struggle now under way. Both sides want 2015 to be a many v few election. Crosby's Tories want to put Labour on the side of the few, defined as foreigners and skivers. Labour wants to put the Tories on the side of the few, defined as millionaires, hedge fund managers and tax-avoiding corporate giants.

If that is indeed the coming battle, then the Tories are ahead. Even if what looks defensive and reactive is, in fact, all part of an ingenious Labour plan, it feels late and insufficiently sustained: Miliband acts as if a single speech were enough to shut down a problem when, as Blair understood, no message even begins to penetrate until it has been repeated a thousand times.

So Labour heads off into the summer with much to contemplate. "It's a long game," says one member of the high command. Certainly 2015 looks far away. But the shape of the contest is being determined right now.

Twitter: @freedland


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This summer Labour cannot rest – or it may lose the battle | Jonathan Freedland

As the Tories break up on a hog-fuelled high, Labour is full of woe. Three years on, why is it still on the defensive?

Among the Tory tribe it's all hog roasts and summer suits. They broke up for the holidays in a sunny mood, cheered by a combative end-of-term Commons performance from David Cameron and the sense that, along with the weather, their fortunes are finally lifting. The way they see it, they battled through a spring that felt like winter and at last they're getting their reward.

That confidence begins with some encouraging economic numbers, including this week's fall in unemployment as well as a welcome fall in crime and the long-delayed exit of Abu Qatada. It's helped by polls showing Labour's lead in the beatable single digits or even, according to the Guardian/ICM survey, reduced to zero. And it is nurtured by the pep talks of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign guru currently credited with honing the Tory message, tilting it in a populist – and rightward – direction and removing anything that might get in the way of its singular focus on immigration, welfare and Labour weakness. Stripping the barnacles off the boat, he calls it – and plenty on the Tory backbenches believe this new, streamlined vessel might just take them to victory, or at least power, in 2015.

Some of this is July fever, a feelgood factor boosted by the Westminster party circuit going alfresco – including that Downing Street porkfest for Tory MPs hosted by the PM. But there is substance too. Crosby does seem to have brought a unity rare just a couple of months ago, when Tories were slashing each other's wrists over dismal local election results and the rise of Ukip. Whatever their differences, they can all agree on naked aggression directed at Labour. The Tories' biggest current worry, a cabinet minister told the FT, is that they might get over-excited, turning from "irrational depression to … irrational exuberance".

Of course, the flipside of this Tory cheer is Labour woe. They end the parliamentary season in a state of humid angst. Even those who dismiss the ICM poll as rogue know their lead is anaemic. With less than two years to go, Labour finds itself perennially on the defensive. This week it was Andy Burnham, called to account for his record as health secretary after the Tories wilfully distorted the Keogh report into those hospitals that had failed or worse. Last week it was Ed Miliband, browbeaten into proposing a change to Labour's union funding arrangements. In recent months, the leader has been pushed into making speeches on both immigration and welfare in order to head off attacks that, Labour feared, were beginning to bite.

It doesn't help that the Tories are backed in these assaults by a rightwing media, much of which have recently rediscovered their message discipline. Or that coalition politics leaves Labour forever on the wrong end of a battle of two against one. Labour is grappling with the fate every candidate or political party dreads: not defining itself, but being defined.

Part of this comes with the territory of opposition, a reactive business by definition. But part of it is blamed on Miliband himself. One figure close to the top reports that the leader "consults everyone but listens to no one", complaining of a strategic indecisiveness reminiscent of Gordon Brown: "It's just a state of constant frustration: no one knows how to get a decision made."

But the problem surely goes deeper than mere leadership style. It's that Labour still spends too much of its time dealing with aspects of its past – attempting to shake off a reputation as wasteful of the nation's money or a soft touch to newcomers and benefit recipients – that it should have dealt with long ago. Three years on, Miliband is still either defending or repudiating aspects of Labour's record in government. It's the price he pays for not having had a reckoning with the Labour legacy much earlier, publicly spelling out what aspects of the Blair-Brown inheritance he aimed to jettison and what he wanted to keep, honour and extend. Instead, each shift has come gradually, sometimes – as on welfare or immigration – as if dragged out of him under duress.

So voters are clear that Miliband believes the Iraq war was a mistake, but what about the rest? Do they know where Labour stands on, say, education? Is the party in favour of free schools and academies, started under Blair, or against them? And why was the most cogent voice against Michael Gove's now-dropped history curriculum Professor Richard Evans rather than the Labour front bench? Naturally, the leadership don't recognise this picture. One senior shadow cabinet member insists that no party just ejected from government could dispense with its past so rapidly. It takes time. Tony Blair, he notes, became leader 15 years after Labour had last been in power, which made dealing with Labour's legacy much easier. "That was never our luxury. We're trying to do this in one parliament."

And what might look like defensiveness is born of a strategy, he insists. Neutralise the potential negatives – immigration, welfare, Europe – now, leaving the path clear to a 2015 battle on terms more favourable to Labour. Central will be the economy. For all the government's hopeful, green-shoots talk now, the recovery is still ultra-fragile. After three flatlined years, most people's standard of living has taken a hit: Ed Balls reckons 2015 might be the first time in the postwar era that a parliament ends leaving a majority of Britons worse off in absolute terms than they were at the start. Allied to it will be fairness, as changes such as the bedroom tax begin to hurt and with focus groups consistently viewing Cameron and George Osborne as on the side of the rich few, rather than the squeezed many.

As Labour sees it, this is the struggle now under way. Both sides want 2015 to be a many v few election. Crosby's Tories want to put Labour on the side of the few, defined as foreigners and skivers. Labour wants to put the Tories on the side of the few, defined as millionaires, hedge fund managers and tax-avoiding corporate giants.

If that is indeed the coming battle, then the Tories are ahead. Even if what looks defensive and reactive is, in fact, all part of an ingenious Labour plan, it feels late and insufficiently sustained: Miliband acts as if a single speech were enough to shut down a problem when, as Blair understood, no message even begins to penetrate until it has been repeated a thousand times.

So Labour heads off into the summer with much to contemplate. "It's a long game," says one member of the high command. Certainly 2015 looks far away. But the shape of the contest is being determined right now.

Twitter: @freedland


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This poll is bad news for Labour, however you spin it | Jonathan Freedland

Labour should be doing much better two years away from an election. Ed Miliband must grab the public's attention – and soon

Pity the Labour operative tasked with drafting the talking points in response to Tuesday's Guardian/ICM poll, which shows Labour and the Tories level for the first time in nearly 18 months. You know what they'll say. That this is, if not exactly a rogue poll, then its more polite cousin, an "outlier". That other polls, including YouGov's daily tracker, have Labour as much as nine points ahead. That even this ICM poll shows no drop in Labour support, but simply a reordering on the right of British politics – with Ukip falling back and the Tories regaining the ground they had lost to Nigel Farage's party. Maybe they'll even try this oldie but goldie: that the only poll that counts is the one on election day.

All of those lines of defence are true enough. But none of them stops this being bad news for Labour. The plain truth is that less than two years away from the next election, the party should be doing much, much better.

For even if that rosier, YouGov figure of 9% is right, it's not good enough. I've heard pollsters say that no opposition party has won a majority without leading at some point by 20%. That might be asking too much in the era of four-party politics, but on any measure the current size of the Labour lead – often in the single digits – is too narrow for comfort. Given the economic climate, with signs of recovery still tentative and few, and with the standard of living for so many so badly hit, the party of opposition at midterm should be in a much stronger position.

That's reflected in the defensiveness that seems to characterise much of Labour's current stance. Oppositions are, by definition, usually in the reaction business. But this goes deeper than the daily response to government policy.

Two examples. First, the Tories' attack on Labour as "the welfare party" is hurting. Polls and focus groups suggest there is a public perception of Labour as the layabout's friend and "the welfare party" tag hits that nerve. The result is that Labour is constantly facing traps set by the Conservatives, the latter daring the former to oppose this or that crackdown on benefits. They are struggling to define themselves rather than be defined.

Second, last week's move by Ed Miliband on union funding for Labour won widespread praise for turning a crisis into an opportunity. His attacks on David Cameron's hedge-fund sugar daddies was adroit and the usually hostile press was delighted to see a Labour leader confront the trade unions. There are plenty who believe the model to follow is Tony Blair's clause IV battles of the early 1990s, when Blair proved he was ready to run the country by taking on his own party.

But while that worked 20 years ago, its effectiveness today is less than certain. The risk is that Miliband turns inward, confronting his own side rather than the government – talking about internal party matters rather than his plan for the country.

Both Miliband and Labour need to break through and get the public's attention. Today's poll suggests that moment is still some way off.

Twitter: @freedland


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This poll is bad news for Labour, however you spin it | Jonathan Freedland

Labour should be doing much better two years away from an election. Ed Miliband must grab the public's attention – and soon

Pity the Labour operative tasked with drafting the talking points in response to Tuesday's Guardian/ICM poll, which shows Labour and the Tories level for the first time in nearly 18 months. You know what they'll say. That this is, if not exactly a rogue poll, then its more polite cousin, an "outlier." That other polls, including YouGov's daily tracker, have Labour as much as nine points ahead. That even this ICM poll shows no drop in Labour support, but simply a reordering on the right of British politics – with Ukip falling back and the Tories regaining the ground they had lost to Nigel Farage's party. Maybe they'll even try this oldie but goldie: that the only poll that counts is the one on election day.

All of those lines of defence are true enough. But none of them stops this being bad news for Labour. The plain truth is that less than two years away from the next election, the party should be doing much, much better.

For even if that rosier, YouGov figure of 9% is right, it's not good enough. I've heard pollsters say that no opposition party has won a majority without leading at some point by 20%. That might be asking for too much in the era of four-party politics, but on any measure the current size of the Labour lead – often in the single digits – is too narrow for comfort. Given the economic climate, with signs of recovery still tentative and few, and with the standard of living for so many so badly hit, the party of opposition at midterm should be in a much stronger position.

That's reflected in the defensiveness that seems to characterise much of Labour's current stance. Oppositions are, by definition, usually in the reaction business. But this goes deeper than the daily response to government policy.

Two examples. First, the Tories' attack on Labour as "the welfare party" is hurting. Polls and focus groups suggest there is a public perception of Labour as the layabout's friend and "the welfare party" tag hits that nerve. The result is that Labour is constantly facing traps set by the Conservatives, the latter daring the former to oppose this or that crackdown on benefits. They are struggling to define themselves rather than be defined.

Second, last week's move by Ed Miliband on union funding for Labour won widespread praise for turning a crisis into an opportunity. His attacks on David Cameron's hedge-fund sugar daddies was adroit and the usually hostile press was delighted to see a Labour leader confront the trade unions. There are plenty who believe the model to follow is Tony Blair's clause IV battles of the early 1990s, when Blair proved he was ready to run the country by taking on his own party.

But while that worked 20 years ago, its effectiveness today is less than certain. The risk is that Miliband turns inward, confronting his own side rather than the government – talking about internal party matters rather than his plan for the country.

Both Miliband and Labour need to break through and get the public's attention. Today's poll suggests that moment is still some way off.

Twitter: @freedland


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As G4S ‘overcharging’ and BBC payouts reveal, life in the UK just isn’t fair | Jonathan Freedland

If all this were in period costume, a Downton Abbey world of elites, we would be appalled. So why isn't there more outrage?

To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. So said George Orwell in 1946, and it's still true. What Orwell had in mind was the human tendency to ignore evidence that contradicts some deeply held conviction, even when that evidence is right before your eyes. We can ignore the obvious in another way too – when we become so used to it that we no longer even see it.

Perhaps both processes explain why there is little outrage at unfairness so glaring that the evidence of it piles up by the day. Take this week alone. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, announced that he was calling in the Serious Fraud Office to investigate the private security company G4S for "overcharging" tens of millions of pounds on the electronic tagging of offenders.

"Overcharging" comes wrapped in quotation marks because it's a rather polite way to describe billing the taxpayer to tag criminals who had either gone abroad, returned to jail or died. Grayling also named a second company, Serco, that had been paid for nonexistent services since at least 2005 if not 1999. G4S have refused to submit to a voluntary forensic audit, but not to worry: the company has promised to "reimburse any overbilling" it identifies.

The technical term for this is chutzpah. If you or I were caught stealing, we would not get off the hook by offering to hand back what we had taken. That option was certainly not available to the man jailed for six months for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 during the summer riots of 2011. But he's not one of the corporations who, despite a proven track record of incompetence – recall G4S's failure to provide security guards for the Olympics, leaving a gap only filled by sending in the troops – nevertheless suck billions from the public teat. At last count in 2010, companies involved in so-called public sector outsourcing – taking on tasks once done by government employees – were raking in no less than £80bn, a figure that is rising ever higher even without "overbilling".

But G4S's offer of reimbursement rings a familiar bell, resonant of Starbucks' response to the discovery that it had paid next to no tax. You'll remember that the milky-drinks giant offered to write a £10m cheque to Revenue & Customs, the first half of which it handed over last month. Again, this is a privilege – deciding for yourself exactly how much tax you should pay, then expecting applause as if you had performed an act of philanthropy – that is not available to the rest of us.

All our politicians talk endlessly about "fairness", ever since equality became too dangerous a word to utter in public. But the evidence is that different rules apply to different people, with the very rich all but exempt. Witness the remarkable balance sheet of Twitter, tipped for an $11bn (£7.3bn) stock market flotation, yet which last week reported a meagre £92,408 in UK profits.

Examples come daily to illustrate how different rules apply to those who are, as Orwell put it, more equal than others. Public sector workers are expected to get by on a 1% pay rise which, thanks to inflation, amounts to a pay cut. Not all public sector workers, however. If they are members of parliament they should get a pay rise of 11%, according to the independent body that sets the rules. (I have no objection, incidentally, to paying our representatives properly: it's the gap between them and other public employees that's wrong.) If they happen to have sat around the BBC's top table, they left with hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence-payers' money, close to a million in the case of the lucky Mark Byford. What definition of fairness does that meet?

Credit should go to the parliamentary committees that shone a bright light on both the BBC payouts and the tax habits of Amazon, Google and Starbucks. On Thursday it was the turn of the Treasury select committee as it questioned George Osborne. The key interrogator was the Labour MP Teresa Pearce, who extracted from the chancellor the admission that he had never been to a food bank and did not know that what pushed people to use them most was a delay in receiving the benefits on which they depend – highly relevant given his plans to make the newly laid-off wait longer for help.

Equally telling, Pearce asked Osborne why the maximum amount of housing benefit that can be claimed for a one-bedroom flat in London is £250 a week, yet for a flat of the same size in the same city an MP can claim up to £350. Why the difference? Osborne had no good answer.

He preferred to talk about his plans for the next parliament, in which "tax increases will not be required". Instead, the deficit will be tamed by cutting what he calls "welfare": in other words, those who have the least will get less. It's a pattern that has become so wearily familiar, we barely notice it: the national belt has to be tightened, so we make sure it squeezes those who are already gasping for air.

As with money, so with power. Ministers dropped their plain-wrapping plan for tobacco on Friday because, as comedian David Schneider quipped on Twitter, they "clearly can't kick their 20 cigarette lobbyists a day habit". The Tories have received £25m from hedge funds, but that barely gets a mention, the political village preferring to obsess over the cash Labour receives from trade unions. And the cronyism at the top only gets worse, our masters unable to see beyond their own gilded circle: note the reviews announced this week by Henry Dimbleby (on school lunches) and Camilla Cavendish (healthcare assistants); one a holiday pal, the other a former colleague, of the education secretary, Michael Gove.

If all this were carrying on in period costume, we would be appalled by it – a Downton Abbey world of elites looking after themselves, the rich getting richer while the rest see even the crumbs that fall from the table rationed: a land of double standards where those with much expect more and believe that the rules, like taxes, are for the little people.

It's hard for us to see all this, because it clashes with our belief – more a hope, really – that society should get better, that we left such crude inequality in our past. Or, when we do see it, perhaps we are so resigned we simply shrug. But it's still there, right in front of one's nose.

Twitter: @Freedland


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As G4S ‘overcharging’ and BBC payouts reveal, life in the UK just isn’t fair | Jonathan Freedland

If all this were in period costume, a Downton Abbey world of elites, we would be appalled. So why isn't there more outrage?

To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle. So said George Orwell in 1946, and it's still true. What Orwell had in mind was the human tendency to ignore evidence that contradicts some deeply held conviction, even when that evidence is right before your eyes. We can ignore the obvious in another way too – when we become so used to it that we no longer even see it.

Perhaps both processes explain why there is little outrage at unfairness so glaring that the evidence of it piles up by the day. Take this week alone. The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, announced that he was calling in the Serious Fraud Office to investigate the private security company G4S for "overcharging" tens of millions of pounds on the electronic tagging of offenders.

"Overcharging" comes wrapped in quotation marks because it's a rather polite way to describe billing the taxpayer to tag criminals who had either gone abroad, returned to jail or died. Grayling also named a second company, Serco, that had been paid for nonexistent services since at least 2005 if not 1999. G4S have refused to submit to a voluntary forensic audit, but not to worry: the company has promised to "reimburse any overbilling" it identifies.

The technical term for this is chutzpah. If you or I were caught stealing, we would not get off the hook by offering to hand back what we had taken. That option was certainly not available to the man jailed for six months for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 during the summer riots of 2011. But he's not one of the corporations who, despite a proven track record of incompetence – recall G4S's failure to provide security guards for the Olympics, leaving a gap only filled by sending in the troops – nevertheless suck billions from the public teat. At last count in 2010, companies involved in so-called public sector outsourcing – taking on tasks once done by government employees – were raking in no less than £80bn, a figure that is rising ever higher even without "overbilling".

But G4S's offer of reimbursement rings a familiar bell, resonant of Starbucks' response to the discovery that it had paid next to no tax. You'll remember that the milky-drinks giant offered to write a £10m cheque to Revenue & Customs, the first half of which it handed over last month. Again, this is a privilege – deciding for yourself exactly how much tax you should pay, then expecting applause as if you had performed an act of philanthropy – that is not available to the rest of us.

All our politicians talk endlessly about "fairness", ever since equality became too dangerous a word to utter in public. But the evidence is that different rules apply to different people, with the very rich all but exempt. Witness the remarkable balance sheet of Twitter, tipped for an $11bn (£7.3bn) stock market flotation, yet which last week reported a meagre £92,408 in UK profits.

Examples come daily to illustrate how different rules apply to those who are, as Orwell put it, more equal than others. Public sector workers are expected to get by on a 1% pay rise which, thanks to inflation, amounts to a pay cut. Not all public sector workers, however. If they are members of parliament they should get a pay rise of 11%, according to the independent body that sets the rules. (I have no objection, incidentally, to paying our representatives properly: it's the gap between them and other public employees that's wrong.) If they happen to have sat around the BBC's top table, they left with hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence-payers' money, close to a million in the case of the lucky Mark Byford. What definition of fairness does that meet?

Credit should go to the parliamentary committees that shone a bright light on both the BBC payouts and the tax habits of Amazon, Google and Starbucks. On Thursday it was the turn of the Treasury select committee as it questioned George Osborne. The key interrogator was the Labour MP Teresa Pearce, who extracted from the chancellor the admission that he had never been to a food bank and did not know that what pushed people to use them most was a delay in receiving the benefits on which they depend – highly relevant given his plans to make the newly laid-off wait longer for help.

Equally telling, Pearce asked Osborne why the maximum amount of housing benefit that can be claimed for a one-bedroom flat in London is £250 a week, yet for a flat of the same size in the same city an MP can claim up to £350. Why the difference? Osborne had no good answer.

He preferred to talk about his plans for the next parliament, in which "tax increases will not be required". Instead, the deficit will be tamed by cutting what he calls "welfare": in other words, those who have the least will get less. It's a pattern that has become so wearily familiar, we barely notice it: the national belt has to be tightened, so we make sure it squeezes those who are already gasping for air.

As with money, so with power. Ministers dropped their plain-wrapping plan for tobacco on Friday because, as comedian David Schneider quipped on Twitter, they "clearly can't kick their 20 cigarette lobbyists a day habit". The Tories have received £25m from hedge funds, but that barely gets a mention, the political village preferring to obsess over the cash Labour receives from trade unions. And the cronyism at the top only gets worse, our masters unable to see beyond their own gilded circle: note the reviews announced this week by Henry Dimbleby (on school lunches) and Camilla Cavendish (healthcare assistants); one a holiday pal, the other a former colleague, of the education secretary, Michael Gove.

If all this were carrying on in period costume, we would be appalled by it – a Downton Abbey world of elites looking after themselves, the rich getting richer while the rest see even the crumbs that fall from the table rationed: a land of double standards where those with much expect more and believe that the rules, like taxes, are for the little people.

It's hard for us to see all this, because it clashes with our belief – more a hope, really – that society should get better, that we left such crude inequality in our past. Or, when we do see it, perhaps we are so resigned we simply shrug. But it's still there, right in front of one's nose.

Twitter: @Freedland


guardian.co.uk © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds