It’s an important discipline when watching elections to remind yourself that political parties are staffed by smart, hardworking people and not - despite occasional impressions to the contrary - complete buffoons. One of those moments came on Sunday, as Ed Miliband stood next to a gaggle of glum-looking supporters in a Hastings car park and unveiled a huge limestone slab with his six election pledges carved onto it.
You can always tell when a political stunt has gone wrong; it’s the moment when party spokespeople tell you that ‘at least it has cut through’ or ‘well, it got people talking about it’. The problem is that you don’t want people talking about the actual stunt, you want them to be talking about the issues raised. Nobody has been discussing the substance of Labour’s pledges, there has, however, been rather a lot of chat about the planning permission required to erect a party political menhir in the Downing Street garden.
So, remembering the rule that parties are mainly staffed by competent people, how did Labour get here? The tricky exam question for elections is how do you essentially say the same thing for weeks on end, but make it interesting enough to get on the news. It’s actually relatively easy to imagine the brainstorm that led to the 'Edstone' photo op (‘I know! Rather than just saying these are carved in stone why not literally carve them in stone?’) but usually such ideas are quickly shot down. Just occasionally though, through tiredness, groupthink or the more cynical members of the team not being in the room at the time, these ideas become glorious reality.
When that happens you get joyous events like Danny Alexander waving a yellow budget box on the steps of the Treasury, or an Elvis impersonator turning up at a Labour election event. And yet the line between those and supposedly successful stunts is a fine one - Jeremy Thorpe’s hovercraft tour is relatively fondly remembered, for example. At the last election David Cameron didn’t carve his pledges in stone, but he did sign a massive contract while surrounded by a bunch of people too young to actually vote; arguably the same ballpark as the stone, but just on the right side of the ‘does this look totally weird?’ side of the argument.
If there’s a serious lesson from the stone stunt, apart from the importance of party staffers trying to get the occasional nap so they don’t lose all critical faculties, it’s that there has to be some actual substance to what you’re saying. Labour have been pushing a message of broken promises for months, knowing that it’s a weapon that can be used against both the the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. But if your own pledges are so vague they basically amount to ‘we will be in favour of niceness and against badness’ you can’t be surprised if people find it much more fun to talk about anything else, particularly if you give them such a wonderful opportunity to do so.