Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Much obliged, m’lord Ashcroft

On discovering, via Tim Montgomerie’s Saturday piece, that Michael Ashcroft (former Tory Deputy Chairman has commissioned a report into the future of the Labour Party, one’s immediate reaction is that it was exceptionally kind of him. After all, as Montgomerie points out, the party is not exactly awash with cash at the moment to do its own polling. Really a very public-spirited action by the noble Lord.

Alright, perhaps Ashcroft is not really bankrolling a report for our benefit. It is of great politi
cal value to the Tories to show Labour to be out of touch and polling poorly. But you know what the smart thing for us to do would be? It’d be to read it very carefully anyway. And the article is a good starting point. It is uncomfortable reading, naturally, but it is always a position of strength to listen to criticism, especially when it’s based on the opinion of ordinary people. And it is always a position of weakness to ignore it.

Wisdom from the Daily Mail, you say? Free your mind. Montgomerie is an intelligent Tory: strip out the partisan from the criticisms made in the first half of the piece, and what’s left is a pretty objective, if ruthless, analysis.

Now, at the very highest level, there are two things any politician needs to get right in order to attain or keep power. The policy thing; and the non-policy thing. It would be great if we were elected purely on our policies; but to think so is dangerously naïve. There is a range of other factors which can make a big difference: aside from public perception of the leader, we have public perception of other key figures, historical context, current economic situation, expectations of the future and so on. And these things tend to apply irrespective of political stripe.

The policy thing you can never get much out of through a Tory prism. Montgomerie himself is a full-blooded Tory on touchstone issues such as Europe; therefore such issues, irrespective of whether the public is bothered about them, are talked up, as we would talk up ours. No, we can mostly skip the policy part.

However, on the non-policy areas, the piece makes for some interesting points. First it reinforces what the personal attack line will be: it characterises Ed Miliband, simply, as odd. Now, the Red Ed approach was always too glib and too visibly inappropriate to stick, but Odd Ed – well, it’s cleverer and more effective. Instead of angrily rejecting the personal attack – after all, a fact of political life – we should do what grown-ups do: calmly clock it; analyse it; and deal with it.

Now, none of us can do much about the way we look or sound; but the fact is that Ed needs to work on how he comes across on television. More personable bloke from the pub, if you like, and less policy wonk or visionary Martin Luther King. Reagan, Clinton and Bush Jr. all had one thing in common: they were people the American public felt they could have a beer with. No, there is something important in that attack line that needs to be neutralised.

Next, the low personal poll rating is brought up, as per last week’s poll. Again, this should be a concern but it is not an insurmountable one: there is still time to change it. More importantly, he admonishes Labour for giving the impression of returning to being a party of protest, of student politics. That stings but it’s also credible, if we review with realism the overall impression left by the March 26th demo (and, whilst there are undoubtedly other factors, it is at least an interesting coincidence that the month following the London demo was the month our poll lead there abruptly evaporated).

Not everything is accurate about the analysis: for example, Montgomerie criticises Miliband’s failure to reform his party, and here he is wrong: it is simply not possible to reform a political party in eight months (although if he means challenge the party, that is a different matter). But one final criticism is an insightful one:

“By the early stages of his leadership David Cameron had been sending mega-watt messages to voters on issues such as the NHS, the environment and fighting poverty — whether you agreed with them or not, they all energetically suggested that he was a very different kind of Conservative.”

The vital subtext here is this: Cameron was prepared to bypass the conventional wisdom of his own party to tell the public what they needed to hear: that his party had changed.

And here is the crux of the matter. Cameron did it. Blair did it with Clause Four. Thatcher did it against the Wets. Once done, all of their positions became secure. All of our leaders, in winning power from opposition, have to do it, usually shortly after becoming leader: it is difficult to argue that Ed should be an exception.

A message of change has been there, yes. But it has been muted, a little fuzzy and, most importantly, directed more at the party and core Labour supporters than at the wider public and swing voters. The public can’t see what’s changed and, if they see anything, they likely see a swing to the left, away from them.

All of this non-policy analysis by the Tories is interesting and useful, precisely because it is largely dispassionate: there is no reason to be nice. It may not all be right, but we could do much worse than to go through it carefully in search of learning points. Because sometimes your worst enemy will tell you the home truth your best friend won’t.

So, thank you, Lord Ashcroft, for all your hard work on our behalf. You’ve whetted our appetite, now if you could just send the full report to Labour Uncut, we’d be much obliged. We’ll pay the postage.


This post was first published at Labour Uncut and selected for the New Statesman's Best of the Blogs and LabourList's Ed's Inbox on 6 June. It has, to date, been the most-read post ever from The Centre Left.

7 comments:

  1. 1. I quite like Ashcroft. The idea of the "enemy" making public your weaknesses is great, only wish it happened in war time!
    2. The cognoscenti are pissed off with (ZaNu)Labour, it has not moved on since Brown. Therefore yes, muppets will (comme d'habitude) vote for you but Labour lost the brightest.
    3. Perhaps get rid of Ed? There is no viable leader however.

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  2. 1. Tim Montgomerie actually hints, interestingly, that he is not sure Ashcroft is wise in doing so. I mean, this is expensive analysis, FOC!

    2. What do you mean. I'm still here, aren't I? ;)

    3. Well, that ain't gonna happen. Labour has a pretty spotless record as regards leader defenestration.

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  3. You are not a muppet. Misguided yes muppet no.
    If Ed stays expect another "Foot-Kinnock" interregnum.

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  4. I think that's a compliment, so I'll naturally take what I can get...

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  5. My plans on a statue of Rob in gold continue apace!

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  6. What do you think Ashcroft's motives are for publishing research Rob?

    On the one hand, it seems stupid that he is publishing it. It will no doubt be extremely thorough (judging by the other pieces of research he has published), and provide Labour with analysis, that would have been costly for them to produce, for nothing. On the other hand, it's possible that he is publishing this to try to push Cameron slightly to the right by showing him how unpopular Miliband/Labour are at the moment despite decent poll ratings.

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  7. It's a very good point. There is probably a move to force Cameron down a particular path, I imagine, containing Ashcroft's favourite hobby horses. Montgomerie also hints that he is genuninely interested in a slightly academic sense in the whole idea of political strategy and keeps things quite factual, which seems to chime with what I've seen.

    The second thing is that, by keeping it objective (and therefore credible), he genuinely influences the debate with the more intelligent commentators in the media. That is a risk for us if we are seen to be sticking our fingers in our ears.

    Re the risks for the Tories, I think, at base, he is simply banking on the fact that Labour will be too proud, or too pig-headed, to take advantage of the polling and learn from it. And my big fear is that he might well turn out to be right.

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