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.