Watching Labour’s 2005 election campaign unfold, I’m afraid words fail me. The great Democrat governor of New York Mario Cuomo once remarked that ‘we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose’. And even though I struggle to find the language to do justice to Labour’s campaign, one poet does capture their approach perfectly: Rudyard Kipling.
Seeing Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn on the offensive irresistibly brings back some lines from ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’. ‘The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,/ And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.’
Under their direction, the government has reverted to its worst instincts — to smear, threaten and distort. The pledge that attended Campbell’s departure from Downing Street, the resolution to abandon the culture of spin, joins the list of other broken promises which constitute new Labour’s distinctive contribution to British public life.
In the past two weeks Labour has unveiled election posters of a crudity that would shame Bernard Manning. Michael Howard has been compared to Fagin, Shylock and a flying pig. Unsurprisingly, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle was moved to protest. But Mr Campbell has seemed unrepentant, boasting that the coverage the posters received in the press was worth millions in free advertising. All they have advertised, however, is the ugly desperation of a campaign reduced to grotesque caricature.
Given the prominence of such negative tactics in Labour’s campaign so far, indeed the remarkable absence of any positive case for their re-election after eight years in power, media attention has naturally focused on Mr Campbell’s role. Illustrating the truism that those who dish it out are invariably incapable of taking it, Mr Campbell responded by framing a defence riddled with the sort of obscenities suitable perhaps for the Burnley terraces but hardly consonant with serving a Prime Minister who makes a point of studding his own speeches with quotations from the King James Bible.
Just in case any journalist failed to get the message that questioning Labour’s approach was now considered both a solemn breach of the constitution and a dangerously career-limiting course of action, Peter Mandelson appeared on the Today programme and reminded Caroline Quinn that the last time the BBC sought to hold Mr Campbell to account it hadn’t ended too happily. Perhaps his next step will be a poster displaying the heads of Greg Dyke, Gavyn Davies and Andrew Gilligan on pikestaffs and the slogan ‘Any more for any more?’.
Unsubtle as Labour’s approach to the Conservatives and the media may have been since the campaign started, their own internal relations have hardly been managed with any greater finesse. At the weekend the party’s election co-ordinator, Alan Milburn, was reported as having said that the appointment of Charles Clarke as Home Secretary was a ‘mistake’ and there were now worrying signs of ‘drift’ in the Home Office. Mr Clarke has been in his post for only six weeks and already he’s being measured up for the concrete overcoat. These guys make the Sopranos look like the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
Mr Milburn, of course, is not without talent. Few people in politics have quite his genius for making enemies. On his own side. What makes his breach with Mr Clarke so remarkable is that both share a deep antipathy towards the Chancellor. Mr Milburn clearly seems to think the principle that my enemy’s enemy should be my friend is needlessly conciliatory. The addiction to internal feuding of the Blair court has all the intensity of a Jacobean revenge drama, without any of the compensating ability to provoke sympathy.
I do, however, despite myself, feel a tinge of pity for one character who has been driven to the back of the stage: Gordon Brown. Even though Labour’s tacticians seem determined to reprise all their old, discredited tricks in this election, the one major difference between the 2005 campaign and those run in 1997 and 2001 is the demotion of the Chancellor. He was the central, driving, organisational and intellectual force behind both those landslides. But this time around both he and his able lieutenant Douglas Alexander have been exiled. Almost literally. Mr Brown has been in Africa, auditioning for his new job as foreign secretary, while Mr Alexander has been racking up the air miles as Minister for Trade. I can quite understand why both should wish to put as much distance between themselves and the Labour campaign as possible, but their absence underlines a gaping hole in Labour’s appeal to the nation.
Mr Brown and his supporters have long argued that, after eight years in power, Labour should attempt to campaign in a positive fashion, not least by talking in visionary terms of the next generation — focusing on the relief of child poverty and support for families struggling to balance the competing claims of work and home life. Such an approach, as well as playing to the evangelical streak in Mr Brown’s character, would aim to provide Labour’s increasingly alienated, cynical and apathetic voters with new enthusiasm.
But instead of following the advice from Gordon and taking the high road, Messrs Campbell, Mandelson and Milburn have clearly chosen the low. They may calculate that the only way to deal with the widespread disaffection for Labour is to paint the opposition as even worse. It might be termed the airline meal strategy. You’ve got to have something, so you might as well have the less offensive option.
The big problem, however, with such cynicism is that it risks so depressing the electorate that it drives all but the most highly motivated voters away from the polls. And that would be very bad news for Labour. At the last election the turnout was only 59 per cent; if it’s even lower this time round, then we already know who is more likely to make the journey to the polls. That considerable section of the electorate which has fallen comprehensively out of love with Labour, and wants to punish them, whether for the Iraq war, banning fox-hunting, mishandling immigration or increasing taxes. With old Lefties fired up to vote for Respect or the Lib Dems, and Conservative England more determined than ever before to register its disgust with the government, Labour risks being caught in a pincer movement.
The government may be irresistibly drawn back to its old campaigning techniques, but surely it should have learnt by now, after the huge collapse in trust which afflicts this administration, that when it plays with fire it is Labour fingers that get burnt.
The author is a columnist for the Times and the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Surrey Heath.