Saturday, September 20, 2003

Egg on my face... some thoughts on Brent East

Well, I was pretty much wrong about Brent East. It turned out to be what can only be described as a stunning victory for the Liberal Democrats. The Labour vote collapsed, the Tory votes staed the same (in percentage terms) while the Liberal Democrat almost trebled their 2001 vote on a reduced turnout.

So what does it mean (and what went wrong in my predictions?)

First of all, my Labour sources tell me that the timing of the election was crucial. They recognise that in by-election terms, the Liberal Democrats are more focussed (forgive the pun), more organised and in the current climate more motivated to work than Labour. So the decision to give the Lib Dems an extra two months on the ground to campaign was a really, really bad one. However, that's with the benefit of hindsight, at the time the expectation was that war controversy would have died down by September. Then came the death of Dr. Kelly and everything changed.

Second, there has been spitting fury in the Labour camp at David Blunkett. His comments on the Tuesday that the race was neck and neck gave permission for every political correspondant in the country to run a "Liberals could win" story, which probably led to a decrease in the hard left/green vote and extra motivation for soft Lib Dem voters.

So those are the tactical issues. What about the serious political ones?

The election campaign wasn't really about Iraq, but it did cause significant issues in two voting groups, Muslims and white collar professionals. There's no evidence to suggest that either switched as a bloc, but there must have been very significant leakage. It also didn't help that Labour allowed the impression thet their candidate was a supporter of the war to go pretty much unchallenged (though it's entirely understandable).

As potent, according to both Lib dems and Labour hacks, were the ultra local issues. The Lib Dems ran a campaign that basically said that Labour had ignored Brent- using Grafitti and Crime as examples. These attacks hit home and labour's counter- talking about the new school and hospital in Brent, more jobs, low mortgage rates etc, etc, clearly didn't.

So what can Labour do about it? Well, I've heard two persuasive arguments. The first says that Labour let the Lib-Dems get away with too much. There were serious personal attacks on the Labour candidate that went unanswered for too long, Labour were reluctant to start a fight with the Lib Dems over crime, graffiti, investment in Brent and the personal integrity of the Lib Dem campaign. For example, on the last day, Labour put out a leaflet accusing the Lib Dems of voting to take £2million away from Brent. it was a true story and might have got traction, but probably barely registered on election day. As a friend said "The Lib Dems get away with all sorts of hypocrisy and dirty campaigning without ever being dragged down to our level- we need to force them to be seen as the same as the rest of us. That means going negative hard". It's a compelling argument, but a rather depressing one. If Labour can stop those who defect from Labour going to the polls at all, Labour win in seats like Brent.

The second argument is more positive. It says that Labour need to give more latitude to local campaigners, need to run aggressive campaigns on local issues, portray the candidate not as a spokesman for the Government, but for the community. So for example, let a candidate being assialed about Graffiti go nuclear at the council, demand more from government, slap ministers around a bit. Treat it not as a by-election in the UK system but like a congressional race in the US.

Of course, thee are not mutually exclusive strategies.

For the Tories, the prediction Nick Barlow and I made independently, that a Lib Dem vistory would preserve IDS a little longer, has come to pass. I can't see any change there. Some silver lining for Labour then.

As for the Lib Dems themselves, a stunning victory, well won. Yet this too poses questions. What is the Lib Dem strategy? Should there even be one, or 650 different staegies, with different candidate espousing the line that appeals most to their electorate? The Lib-Dems lie second to the Tories in more constituencies than they do Labour. In those places, the Labour vote collapsed in 2001 so is unlikely to be squeezed further. Is a left of labour position going to play? Is it even viable- given that Lib-Dem economic and public service policy is developing well to the right of Labour's (tax increases excepted)? Can an alliance between disaffected labour voters and moderate tories pay dividends. The Lib-dem need to answer these questions. Simon Hughes is likely to run for Mayor of London on a leftish ticket and his performance in Liberal/Tory seats will be extremely instructive.

As for Labour. Expect to see Ken Livingstone re-admitted to the party. Expect the left voices to be much louder than before at Conference. Expect them to be angrier and brushed aside just as before. The Unions will push for policy concessions. They won't get the big ones, but will get some smaller ones. The hard left in labour will say thatBlair has run his course and should go. They will be wrong.

But hey, I thought Labour would win Brent East, so what do I know!

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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

A report from the doorsteps.. and a hostage to fortune

The by-election on Thursday 18th September is being seen as a major test of the Labour government (I like to imagine I sound like Peter Sissons when I say things like that- concerned tone, serious nod and now over to John in Brent) with the Liberal Democrats threatening to steal a major victory from beneath the noses of the Labour Party.

Indeed, former Tory MP Michael Brown steals an idea from Nick Barlow and myself in the Independent today by arguing that Tories should vote Liberal Democrat (in order for the headlines to be about a Labour disaster rather than a Tory one)

One has to say that for a seat where the Tories came only 2000 votes behind Labour in the latest local elections this is a remarkable collapse of morale.

It is also a tribute to the skills of the Lib Dem campaign that they have got the media talking about their agenda.

I spent a day on the campaign trail for Labour this week, and my unscientific opinion? I got the feeling that it’ll be close but that Labour should just sneak it.

How do I reach this conclusion- aside from talking to my fellow canvassers amd leafletters? First because of inertia. In 2001 Labour had a 15,000 lead over the Lib-Dems. To put it another way, Labour’s lead was more than 4 times the Lib Dem vote.

Second, the Iraq vote is limited and doesn’t seem to be catching fire. Annoyance at local issues seems to be a bigger factor –and have been treated as such by all parties. This is, in my humble and unscientific opinion, related to the fact that Brent is not Hampstead. The UN doesn’t play quite so well.

Third. While the Labour candidate is no Dianne Abbott, he isn’t a Tony Blair speak-Your-Weight machine either. Ken Livingstone is endorsing him and playing a major role in the campaign literature.

Fourth, the plethora of protest candidates means a reasonable proportion of anti-Labour vote will go to the “Give Blair a slap” candidate, the Green candidate, the Socialist alliance candidate the “real labour” candidate-. Maybe even more than 1,500 votes.

The argument that I’d expect a Lib Dem to put forward is that there is major voter unhappiness, people don’t like the council, don’t like the war, want more public services. These people are going to troop to the polls in huge numbers in protest, also, they do love to leaflet..

All of that’s right; I just don’t think it’ll be enough. But I’d be surprised if it was more than a couple of thousand votes either way. (Pathetic but true ass covering)

On a less serous note, All the campaigns are being wonderfully vicious about each other. My personal favourite yesterday was a Tory leaflet which attacked the Labour candidate for having an expensive house in Surrey (Any Tory Bloggers want to do a piece on the politics of envy?) and attacked the Lib-dem for calling herself local when she appears to be from most of Southern England. (all parties have ‘em)

Also, I saw Labour Director of communication Eddie Morgan in a bright red Labour T-shirt delivering leaflets like the rest of us grunts. Perhaps spin is dead after all.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Welcome to the ranks, Mr Richards.

So on my return I discover a new voice in the Blogging fraternity. Mr Paul Richards, former NOLS fixer, Parliamentary candidate (but, he has stressed previously, not a wannabe MP), sometime communications consultant to London Labour councils, intimately connected New Labour insider has joined us. Let me extend a hearty, if overdue, welcome. Damn, When I started doing this, I was the only New Labourite on the blog scene. Now we teem and multiply.

Anyway, Mr Richards mentions LBJ in an early post. Which is all the excuse I need to link to this speech. read it, and remember that Lyndon Johnson should be remembered, not just for Vietnam, but for ending Apartheid in America.

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Monday, September 15, 2003

The last months British Spin… digested.

Well, I’ve not been able to post for a while. But that doesn’t mean I’ve not been keeping a beady eye on the world of politics. So here’s a boiled down, concentrated, fun sized summary of the issues of the last month.

And where to start but the resignation of a certain A. Campbell esq? In the end, sadly inevitable. As a flack, as soon as you’re more svengali than supplicant at the alter of your principal, your card is marked. David Hill is an able replacement, and talk of the death of spin is nonsense, if only because at the moment, the government saying anything other than “we are immoral and incompetent, please schedule us for public flagellation” is regarded as heinous and distasteful media manipulation.

The Tory Party: Mr Smith says the dark days are over and sees a new Tory dawn ahead. Mr Smith is clearly living in the Arctic circle during the depths of winter, as the dark days that are over are soon to be followed by.. more dark days. This time instigated by the horrible mauling the Tories face at the Brent East by-election. Only a Liberal Democrat victory can save Mr Smith from a Tory crisis and his possible removal. Another good reason to vote Labour, folks.

Iraq and the Hutton Inquiry: Geoff Hoon and Andrew Gilligan are toast. There is a desperate need for a reconstruction programme for Iraq. The UN should be involved, and all our leverage should be put into making the Americans accept the inevitable sooner rather than later. If they don’t do it, that $87 billion is going to look like chump change. However bad things get though, just think to yourself. No torture chambers. No “dissappeared”

Jack Straw’s “stop the war” memo: pre-emptive ass-covering or astute and loyal advice about an possibility that needed covering? Who can tell. If it is an ass covering manoeuvre though, one can only assume that Mr Straw thinks things will get worse rather than better. On the other hand, this could explain what the Americans had a last minute wobble abut British support. If Straw was thinking about what to do.

: How stupid are the brothers? Three phrases that should be engraved over the TUC congress entrance. “In Place of Strife”, “Winter of Discontent” and “Don’t be so stupid this time”. Recipe for a Tory government? Union radicalism based on misreading of public opinion*, Internal Party splits, Pressure for a swing to the left and calls for the redignation of the leadership. Hello? Anyone home?

That’ll do for now. More soon, including “Compass: self-aggrandising waffle or in depth policy answer for New Labour?” Mostly the former and some pretty ludicrous phrasing too. Still it should get the participants onto Sky and News 24 a lot more. After all, the Matthew Taylor all-purpose Newsnight slot is up for grabs. Apparently it’s like the Oklahoma landrush over there in media friendly thinktank world.

*look, opinion polls said people wanted more money for NHS and education throughout the 80’s. Meant jack-all then, means jack-all now.

Saddest event of the last week
: Death of Johnny Cash.

Makes you proud to British award: The chap who was hitting golf balls at ludicrous egomaniac prestidigitator David Blaine.

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