25 May 2008

Some brief thoughts on Crewe

It's hard to judge what impact the Crewe By-Election will have on Scottish politics in the short-term (other than the panic which has now hit UK Labour has taken the heat off Wendy Alexander for the moment and it meant the Scottish Tory Conference in Ayr this weekend could take place in high spirits), but the three main UK parties all have important lessons to learn.

The Tories now need to realise that they're going to come under scrutiny. People are talking like a Tory Government is going to happen, and that means that people are going to look at them and what they stand for more carefully. It's what happened to the SNP from late 2006 onwards, and in the SNP's case, it only served to increase momentum. Why? Because the SNP had a clear set of policies ready by then, so it was SNP policy being discussed in the press... free publicity! What happens if they shine a light on Tory policy, only to find that there's nothing there? Just being on the ballot paper and not being Labour isn't enough: "Where's the beef?" is going to be the cry and the Tories are going to have to come up with clear and detailed ideas soon - saying that they'd do things differently isn't enough (they have to say how they'd so them differently), and huffing that Labour would nick their ideas isn't an excuse for not producing any.

Strangely, Labour have the same problem. One year into a Brown Premiership, and we have no idea what it's for. Where is Labour taking us? What do they want to do? A year ago we had some of the younger faces in the Government talking about the "second decade", but what would that mean for the country? We had no idea. And the "toff" campaign was a disgrace: firstly, condemning the Tory candidate for enjoying privileges as a result who his father happens to be is hypocritical when the Labour candidate just co-incidentally happened to be the late, great Gwyneth Dunwoody's daughter. And secondly, portraying Tamsin Dunwoody as an "unemployed single mum" conveniently elides the fact that the reason Dunwoody was unemployed is that the voters of Preseli Pembrokeshire voted her out of the Welsh Assembly. And here's a question: when was the last time you heard of a former Junior Minister (as she was in the Welsh Assembly Government) not being able to get something the minute he or she demitted office? Here's another one: how many unemployed single mums do you know who have the resources needed to stand in a Parliamentary Election? The whole campaign reeked of two-facedness and overlooked bits that maybe weren't consistent with the Labour message, that only the Tory candidate was a toff, and being a toff was bad.

Besides, this is the problem with Labour. A Government of 11 years chooses not to stand on its record, or tell us where they want to take us in the future. Instead, the party opts to go for visceral campaigns attacking the personality of anyone who dares challenge Labour's divine right to rule. We saw it in Crewe. We saw it in London. We saw it last year in Scotland, with the awful "Little Alex" cartoons. All we learn is that the Labour Party hates Tory or SNP candidates, and if that's all they can tell us about their own party, then Labour is doomed to lose office (as it did in Scotland and London) and will deserve to do so. The LibDems should consider themselves lucky not to have faced that sort of character assassination yet. Even if the implication is that they don't quite merit one.

And what of the LibDems? Nick Clegg has taken a Cameronite (or should that be Cameron-lite?) approach. It's doomed to failure for as long as Cameron is both around and politically strong. A Cameron-like figure could not have been a viable Leader of the Tories as the "Heir to Blair" when Blair at the height of his powers: it took his decline for Cameron to look like a possible PM, and to be able to contrast sharply not only with Gordon Brown, but also with Blair himself, who was visibly older and politically when David Cameron became Leader than he was in 1997. Basically, Cameron's selliing point was that you got all the good things you got initially when you chose Tony Blair, the things that he no longer had and Brown never had. Clegg can't successfully offer the things that you want to see from David Cameron because Cameron still has them. If people want something like Cameron's Tories, they will vote for Cameron's Tories, because they are still available. What, then, is the point of voting for Clegg's LibDems?

No, the LibDem way forward is to go for the approach that has seen them win seats like Manchester Withington, and grow stronger in municipal elections in places like Liverpool or Newcastle-upon-Tyne: go to the left of Labour, and offer the things they used ot offer. The "social justice" line, basically. It's not a new one: Charles Kennedy had a stab at offering it, Simon Hughes probably would offer it as well. Kennedy played well with the voters; what did for him was his alcoholism. Simon Hughes was polular with the party; what did for him was The Sun choosing outing him. Their policies weren't what was wrong. Will they put LibDem support in the more middle-class leafy Southern suburbs? Of course they will, but it's already at risk from a resurgent Conservative party. The gains they made there are going to disappear anyway under the blue tide, so if they don't take a line which will consolidate their successes in the cities, and allow them to make further gains there, then they're asking to fail.

So to sum up:

Tories: offer something clear. You have to give voters something to think about.
Labour: offer something other than spite. You have to give voters a reason for voting for you, rather than things you don't like about the other lot.
LibDems: offer something different. You have to offer something that isn't being offered by someone who has a better chance of getting into office to deliver it anyway.


Ted Harvey said...

On a regular basis I have been posting on 'English based' sites how all the lessons for 'British' Labour are there in the Scottish Labour debacle. But for some reason PM Gordon Brown et al have not heeded my advice :)
The sheer contempt with which Brown et al hold the Tories in, and the inept and vicious way they tried to use tribal class and inverted snobbery at Crewe directly mirrors the Scottish scenario. In that scenario, the Scottish Labour movement (which in the words of Labour MP Cairns became the Scottish Establishment)has been incapable of coming out of its comfort zone of pressumed dominance and been utterly unable to contend with an electorate voting SNP in any way other than perpetuatung a visceral hatred of 'the Nats'. Cairns's utterances about the McChattering classes indicates that they may even extend some of that hatred to some of the electorate.

A final thought on the Crew campaign. Suppose the Tories were to mount a campaign to oust Michael Martin as Leader of the Commons (just suppose)... and they were to do so using a caricature of a 'Jock' wearing a manky kilt, going around pissed and swearing a lot, wearing a see-you-jimmy hat with 'WC' (for working class)pinned on it and carrying a wee box marked 'state benefits swag'... you know I somehow think we would hear a great screeching and wailing from the Labour ranks about snobbery and discraceful class warfare.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

Mi fwynheais dy golofn yn y rhifyn cyfredol o Barn yn arw.

Or, in case you didn't write it in the published language, I thoroughly enjoyed your column in the current edition of Barn

neil craig said...

Good point about us not knowing what Labour is for. Brown has had years to figure out what he is going to do as PM )indeed that was the whole basis of his fights with Bliar) & yet, after a year in power we still don't know what he wants to achieve.

I'm not sure about the LDs moving to the left of Labour. That may be an empty niche but there may be reason for that. The big current difference between them & both big parties is that they are committed to closing down all nuclear & going 100% windmillish, which is, perhaps wrongly, considered pretty leftish. Since this is pretty much the position both big parties held till very recently they should be in scooping up votes - except that it is an insane position.