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BROWN DIGS FOR VICTORY

04-05-2010

It was a week when Labour’s error-strewn, accident-prone campaign, threatened to derail completely. Yet by the end of it the party was rising again in the opinion polls. Steve Beauchampé reports on an election campaign which continues to defy expectations.

Labour Party in a hole, Gordon Brown promises to: “dig deeper”.

It was hard to imagine a more unfortunate choice of phrase than that employed by the Prime Minister on Friday morning, after his 48-hour version of an annus horribilus.

Widely believed to have been outperformed in the final leader’s debate by both David Cameron and Nick Clegg, and still reeling from the embarrassing postscript to his ‘chance’ (read ‘staged’) encounter with Labour-supporting Rochdale grandmother Gillian Duffy the previous day, Brown could have been forgiven for expecting to lead his party to an even greater defeat than that suffered under Michael Foot in 1983.

And still he might. Yet Sunday’s opinion polls showed the party edging up a percentage point or two, essentially at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, but to a position where - with just a small further increase - they could prevent the Conservatives from forming a minority government and even emerge as the single biggest party under our warped voting system.

As Harold McMillan once observed: “Events dear boy, events”. Meaning that you plan to the nth degree only for something completely unexpected to happen to shatter your dreams.

Labour had begun the week in a positive frame of mind, with Brown promising to concentrate on policy (hurrah, I wish someone would!) whilst getting out to meet ‘real’ voters (ditto!).

By midweek things were looking brighter, with the party threatening to reclaim second place in the opinion polls from the Lib Dems.

But things quickly turned sour. First the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a damning report chastising all three main parties for understating the level of cuts required to tackle the rising National Debt.

Then came Rochdale (the media tiresomely dubbed it Bigot-gate, though as the Prime Minster went to Mrs Duffy’s house to apologise and the two were then photographed in front of it, perhaps Garden-gate would have been more accurate) and Labour were back to damage limitation.

Gordon was contrite, profusely apologetic. Mrs Duffy meanwhile was signing an exclusive newspaper deal (she only popped out for some bread but came home with loads of dough); oh it’s not just our MPs, almost everyone’s on the make in modern-day Britain!

Her sense of geography left something to be desired too as she mused to the PM: “All these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?” Perhaps she’ll spend some of her windfall on an atlas.

In fact being apologetic and promising to do better has become something of a trademark for Gordon Brown over the last couple of years and I’ve lost count of the number of occasions that he’s acknowledged making mistakes and promised to work harder and improve.

Eventually it just makes him appear weak and as a general rule the public much prefer their leaders to be strong and confident rather than honest and contrite (despite what they might claim).

None of this would have happened with Tony Blair. Making his second brief appearance of the campaign at a London clinic on Friday, Blair endorsed the party in red, though his skin tone more than hinted at support for the Liberal Democrats.

The night before, at the conclusion of the final Leader’s debate, arch-Blairites Lord Mandelson and Alistair Campbell had appeared in the temporary media centre established at the University of Birmingham to spin like hyperventilating catherine wheels about how Gordon Brown had won the debate hands down.

In what may be the swansong for New Labour’s two chief architects, I doubt even they believed their own message.

Whatever the result on May 6th, the inquest into Labour’s disastrous, dysfunctional campaign will be unforgiving.

Whether Mandelson or Campbell, Douglas Alexander or those from Brown’s own inner circle (Charlie Whelan?) are primarily culpable I don’t know, but it’s been an uninspiring mess from the outset.

Example: at last year’s Labour Party conference (if memory serves me correctly), Brown powerfully listed Labour’s myriad achievements on social reform since 1997 (minimum wage, working tax credits, implementation of human rights legislation, Sure Start, massive investment in health and education etc).

Yet in contrast the party’s election campaign has been overwhelmingly centred around playing the fear factor for all (indeed arguably much more) than it’s worth, as if a messy draw that keeps the Tories from power is as good as outright victory.

Days from polling and the Labour message remains that the Conservatives will cut essential services and raise taxes; such negative campaigning is precisely what reinforces public cynicism of our political system.

David Cameron must have been looking on with pleasurable bemusement; he could almost have gone on holiday this last week and fared no worse. In fact, most of his Shadow Cabinet apparently have.

Chris Grayling; Damien Green; Philip Hammond - remember them? No, me neither. Even relative big hitters such as Bill Hague, Ken Clarke and George Osbourne have been sighted but rarely.

The Conservative campaign has been unashamedly Presidential. It’s also been safe, assured, reasonably polished and competent; no alarms and no surprises. Cameron will commit no faux pas; there will be no car crash moments.

The Tories have learned much from the campaign management-style of both New Labour and Obama’s Democrats in the USA. Yet their campaign has also been uninspiring.

The sense of excitement and anticipation that accompanied Tony Blair’s accession in 1997, the momentous, historic euphoria and memorable rhetoric surrounding Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, are nowhere identifiable with Cameron.

So much that the Conservatives find themselves - four days from polling - slightly down in the polls from where they started four weeks ago (with two recent polls indicating the party’s support flattening out at around 33%-34%).

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg’s halo has slipped just a little.

A combination of continued attack from the two main parties and the Liberal Democrats own sparse funds and army of volunteers have seen the party slip back, not by much, but significantly enough to give hope to the Tories that they might secure an overall majority and to Labour that they may avoid the debacle of coming third in the popular vote.

And yet, and yet, and yet. There are so many factors, so many individual battles being fought in constituencies throughout Britain.

Tactical voting, Ulster Unionist ties with the Conservatives, the influence of Plaid Cymru and a slippage in support for the SNP. Has the Lib Dem surge knocked out support for the left-leaning fringe parties (or conversely will the Greens win in Brighton)?

Will support for the BNP and UKIP impact respectively on Labour and the Conservatives? Will the increasing desire for fundamental electoral reform be a decisive factor in voter intentions?

Perhaps we should view the 2010 General Election not as a single, homogenous event, but as 650 individual by-elections with all the upsets and unpredictability such contests often bring.

Yet one thing I am prepared to predict. The final distribution of seats will unjustly reflect the levels of support for Britain’s three main political parties. So perhaps fittingly, this rotten parliament and its broken voting system will deliver a corrupted result.

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