Friday, May 23, 2008 

All change at Crewe.

Just like how it was a foregone conclusion that Labour would win the general election in 2005, the question was only by how much, it was much the same in Crewe and Nantwich yesterday. The swing to the Conservatives was slightly less than 20%, but the more stark figure was the majority of over 8,000. Mid-term blues, economic woes and everything else besides, to go from having a 8,000 majority in one of your safest seats to being beaten by over 8,000 votes three years later is nothing short of a catastrophe.

While the above and the horrendously bad Labour campaign strategy are the main reasons for the loss, it's the crystallisation of everything that has been wrong with New Labour which makes this defeat different. At long last, the hollowness of Labour's words has been exposed, and by, in the unpleasant euphemism, Labour's "core". New Labour's election strategy has been simple and up till now effective: firstly, stress economic competence and how wonderful the end of boom and bust has been, as well as the spending on public services; second, be as authoritarian on law and order as possible without pissing off the Grauniad-left too much and without pleasing the Sun/Daily Mail enough; and lastly, make clear how awful it would be if those Tories got back in.

All three of these things were in evidence in Crewe, except the economic confidence line had been reversed. Rather than stressing how wonderful everything is, which would be suicidal, the decision was to put that Brown and his puppet Darling would make everything all right again after the "global" circumstances have calmed down. This has always been a specious line when Northern Rock has been one of the biggest casualties of what used to be called a crisis of capitalism rather than a "credit crunch", and this was brought home by the anger in Crewe about the 10p rate, hitting home just as the bills are beginning to pile up. All of Labour's huffing and puffing over criminal justice policies in the past few months, the Daily Mail bribing over cannabis, Jacqui Smith's advocating of the police behaving in exactly the same way as the "yobs" themselves and the continuing, bizarre, obsession with 42 days, none did anything to placate the electorate, and nor did the blatantly xenophobic and insulting playing up of how the Conservatives don't support ID cards for either foreign nationals or us lucky normal citizens. Last, the playing up of the "toff" card was the substitute for "don't let the Tories wreck everything" ploy and it was both so pathetic, so desperate and so vacant that it should have been the final straw for the activists themselves.

The loss could have been mitigated somewhat if Labour had bothered to notice just one or two things. If you were going to do a personal attack, don't be so staggeringly obvious and unsubtle. Instead of targeting Timpson for being well-off or a "toff", attack him for being another identikit Tory politician in a sharp suit in either his 30s or 40s who doesn't seem to know what he's talking about other than what he's told by the higher-ups. Timpson's winning speech was stunning in its crassness and triumphalism; some might say he's entitled to be after such a campaign, but all I saw was the sneer which so often also appears to be on the face of George Osborne, who he more than resembles. It was impossible to do this though because of Labour's biggest mistake: Tamsin Dunwoody herself. If Timpson was unpleasant, then the fourth(?) generation of the Dunwoody political clan was both charmless and sour. Again, perhaps being given such a poisoned chalice excuses her mood somewhat, but being so directly to interviewers as she was is not going to help you win over the floating voter. Gwyneth herself might have had those qualities also, but she made up for them through her independence and contempt for New Labour, neither of which her daughter obviously had, as the campaign made clear. After all, what is more contemptuous, imposing a rich boy in a suit on a working-class town or a party which is meant to be all about equality and the dead-end of meritocracy sticking another Dunwoody on the ballot and expecting the electorate to not notice the difference?

Moreover, Labour missed the most gaping, open goal since the footing slipped from under John Terry on Wednesday. In one of his rare forays into the hostile world of the normal person, or at least those inclined to give him a harder time than others seem to, David Cameron was faced by an almost Paxman-esque local who demanded, three times, whether the Tories would reinstate the 10p rate. Each time Cameron refused to answer, for the reason we all know being that he and the rest of his party couldn't give a stuff about it in actuality but are playing on it because of the damage it's caused. How did Labour fail to seize on this, and not make clear that the hole had been filled (somewhat) and that the Conservatives were not even offering any solid policy on what they would do other than keep public spending at the same level as Labour initially before moving towards "sharing the proceeds of growth"?

Granted, doing either of these things was not going to win the seat for Labour. With a better run campaign however, it could have at least stopped the swing being so damaging that it really does look as if it's curtains, if not for Gordon Brown immediately, then definitely for Labour itself. Credit due to Cameron, he has the same knack as Blair occasionally did for capturing the moment, and his declaration that "this is the death of New Labour" is now going to be next to impossible to shake off. Coming with another wounding performance in the Commons on Wednesday, where Brown walked straight into Cameron's trap, for all his lack of difference with the Blair vision of a modern politician, Cameron now looks almost unassailable as the next prime minister. As others have stated, this result is still not a vote of confidence in Tory policy; it's still far too sparse for that. What it is however is a sign that voters now think that Cameron and his party are worth a go, so fed up have they become with Labour and also, sadly, Gordon Brown himself.

I say sadly because I still think that Brown had the qualities to be a great prime minister. Unlike Blair up until his messianic streak took him wholly and Major entirely, Brown does believe in what he's doing, and always has. He's however stumbled into the top job and not found it like he thought it would be; no longer can he play like he's still in opposition like he did at the Treasury, running an insurgency against Blair and his worst attempts at pitiful and needless reforms, making the right arguments and often winning. He can't distance himself any longer from the government as a whole; he is the government, and his continuation of the worst of Blairism while not making the changes he's promised has brought both the party and himself to the brink, although it was always Blair that did the damage in the first place, and continues to do through the memoirs and constant recollections.

Again then we go through the suggestions, advice and in some cases, pleas from both outsiders and insiders on what he needs to do. Again there is no sign that Brown is really listening. Both John McDonnell on the socialist left and Compass on the soft left urge and urge again that they stop the dismal triangulation and return to Labour's roots. Last week's draft Queen speech showed that Brown has no intentions of doing that, and he's hardly going to rip that up and start again. It would actually make him even weaker if he did that, welcome as it would be. The least worst thing he could do would be a reshuffle: acknowledge the walking disaster that is "Wacky" Jacqui Smith and sack her; get rid of Hazel fucking Blears and send her to the gulag; perhaps move Jack Straw to be chancellor; and swallow his pride and bring back some of the old big beasts, like Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and Frank Field, if only because it's better for them to be inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Then more or less do what was suggested after the local elections, by getting rid of ID cards, bringing the troops back from Iraq, scrapping 42 days and most radically of all, abolish tax credits and raise the very poorest out of tax altogether while helping the reasonably well-off that also benefit through taking away in the first place less, all raised by either a windfall tax on the obscene oil/gas profits and/or by taxing the rich and especially the super-rich more.

All of this would completely wrong foot the Tories. They could play it as desperation and it might work but it would also truly show Brown to be listening. However, as we've seen time and time again when politicians have promised to listen, all they've done is carry on just as before. With no real chance of a leadership challenge, and with even the possibility of one only turning the electorate off more with the party gazing at its navel, Crewe and Nantwich along with David Cameron seem to have written Labour's epitaph.

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Monday, May 19, 2008 

Euphemisms and the same old same old.

Just when it doesn't seem that it can get any worse for Labour and Gordon Brown, out comes another a new poll that shows that the collapse in support for the party is continuing. The latest Guardian/ICM poll puts Labour's support at 27%: the lowest since the the poll series began back in 1984, with the Tories in front by 14 points, at 41%. Although it seems unlikely that would be the outcome at the general election, as Labour surely can't go any lower, it still suggests that the days of hoping for that almost mythical hung parliament may well be over: a result on this scale will gave the Tories a landslide akin to that of Labour's in 97. The country has also firmly turned on Brown, with 51% ranking John Major as a better prime minister, with 67% saying the same of Blair.

Some of that must surely be directly related to probably temporary anger about the 10p rate, or the listlessness consuming the government as the Tories look increasingly confident and like they're enjoying themselves for the first time in years. Osborne's response to last week's mini-budget was pure posturing without any real answer, but Cameron's skill at the dispatch box cannot be denied, running rings round Brown, the man who previously smacked down a succession of shadow chancellors, now apparently bereft of any answer other than to repeat the same old "achievements" with promises of how he'll lead us through the economic storm.

It's little wonder this is the case when the best thinking inside the mainstream Labour party is by Peter Hain, who's managed to work out that the party has to appeal to both Labour's "core" and to the "aspirational", rather than either one or the other. The problem is that Labour at the moment is appealing to neither, and has no apparent idea of how to do it. Hain's main points are about how to win back support in Wales, where the party was decimated in the local elections. The answers to that ought to be obvious, based on the reading of the results. Rather than going to the Conservatives, the Labour support either stayed at home, turned to the nationalists, Plaid Cymru, or to left-wing independents that may once have been associated with Labour. They didn't go because Labour wasn't speaking to the "aspirational" among them; they went because they stopped talking to them entirely, taking them for granted just as Hain's former colleagues in the cabinet have for the last 10 years. The 10p rate was the final straw.

What we're using here is euphemisms. It no longer seems politically-correct to refer to the "core" vote as working-class, or to the so-called "aspirational" as the middle classes, because that's what they are, and if anything, the euphemisms are far more patronising than the former labels. Equally meaningless is "progressive", which really deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. When both Hillary Clinton and David Cameron call themselves "progressive", when neither are in the slightest what was once meant by the term, it's time to abandon it. It's partly because the old terms have become insults, when they shouldn't have. The Sun and others disparagingly decry "Lefties", while some of us who consider ourselves lefties consider "right-wing" to mean much the same. Also guilty are the third-way proselytisers, who tried to tell us that right and left were obsolete, purely because they themselves didn't believe in either but in reality tended to be to the right of what the rest of us still understood as the political spectrum.

I raise these issues because they seem especially pertinent when considering the by-election campaign in Crewe and Cameron's claim for the Tories to be the true new progressives. Despite such revolting apologia from Hopi Sen and others of the usual suspects, the Labour campaign, if it can be called that, targeting the Tory candidate Edward Timpson as a "toff", hounding him with young activists dressed up in tails and top hats, is a sign of the sheer desperation and political bankruptcy of the party in 2008. We might all still quite rightly be obsessed with class in 2008, but to openly and cravenly use your opponent's wealth and upbringing as the main reason for why he shouldn't represent a working-class constituency is to admit that you have nothing else to say or, that if you tried, you'd be haplessly beset by the fact that your arguments would count for nought. It's all well and good to cry that they've done it before or are still doing it, but that's the equivalent of the child excusing his behaviour by saying his friend did it first. The child description is perhaps apt: the Labour smearing and leaflets attacking "Tory-boy Timpson" for his mansion and opposition to foreign workers getting ID cards is petulant and juvenile. The starting point for the Labour fightback ought to have been Cameron's appearance there last week, when he was filmed prevaricating weakly in front of a real person who asked what he would do about the 10p rate. They could say that Labour has now mostly fixed it, and that what the rest of Cameron and the gang are offering is the same old Thatcherism wrapped up in a kinder face, as epitomised by his speech on the economy today.

The reason why even that though would be next to impossible though is because it does almost seem as if history is repeating. After Blair became Labour leader after the death of John Smith, he spent the best part of the two years before campaigning for the election began to come across much as Cameron has, as the caring, different new generation of politician prepared to listen, having what Jon Cruddas has referred to as "emotional literacy". This means talking about Britain's "broken society" in much the same way as Labour might have done if out of power, but adding in the same old dog whistles of family breakdown which can be cured if you bribe the middle classes, use of the voluntary sector rather than the state, and believing in society, it's just not the same thing as the state, as if anyone ever said it was. The harsher side of the rhetoric however doesn't filter through: just the vacuousness does. New Labour offered the "new realities and the new paradigm" with the face of Blairism, far kinder than the old nasty Conservatives who said what they meant. Cameron has learned this is the way to do it now, except his vision is to the right of Blair's version.

That's what's so perplexing about the political environment at the moment. We've only just gotten rid of Blair and all he stood for, yet the public apparently wants his heir apparent rather than strange fusty old Gordon. There's no doubt that the public have not yet embraced the Conservatives; what they have embraced is change. Brown hasn't been enough of a change, yet Cameron is no change at all except in the aesthetic department. There's still the best part of two years for this to fully pan out, but if the Conservatives don't win Crewe on Thursday then it will be astonishing. The question will then be whether Brown can survive any further setbacks: at the moment there is no obvious alternative, but defeat in Crewe will only bring the spectre of defeat ever closer, and we all know what they can entail. The sad fact may well be that Labour is already doomed, but it no longer seems impossible that it won't be Brown who'll lead them into that dark night.

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