Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Brand the Tories right wing? I Woodwouldn’t

Oh dear. To read the Observer report of Shaun Woodward’s leaked memo on how Labour should attack the Tories, the question which springs to mind is not so much, is this going to be genuine Labour strategy as, what on earth was he thinking?

The thrust of the piece is that Labour should attack the Tories for reverting from their “cuddly conservative” projection to a more traditional right-wing positioning, and to make this the Brown-style “dividing line” between us and them, on which we should base our attack.

Now, there is much to be said for dividing lines, indeed their judicious use has been a great help to Labour over the last twenty years. And there is no doubt that Cameron is now pursuing a more right-wing agenda than was being projected in the run-up to the general election. However, for a whole raft of reasons, Woodward has badly miscalculated.

Firstly he has missed that, in the current political environment, being seen as from the right electorally is not necessarily a bad thing. In the wake of the riots – unlike various politicians and commentators – voters are in the main looking for punishment over understanding (whether they are right to do so is quite another matter). They trust the Tories over Labour on the economy. And they are not alone in a more international sense (perhaps someone should point out to Woodward the prevailing conservative hegemony across Europe).

Next, the attack strategy highlights three areas – law and order, immigration and welfare – where they polling indicates they particularly want to see more conservative policies – and they are issues that currently matter a great deal to people. In fact, Cameron has been rather smart: he has moved to the right principally on issues where he feels that he has public opinion on his side as cover for doing so. In doing so, he also leaves the Lib Dems nicely squeezed between public opinion on the one side and their increasingly uncomfortable left-leaning backbenchers on the other. They don’t particularly like where they are – see various comments over the past twelve months from Vince Cable – but neither do they really have much choice and are, from Cameron’s point of view, pleasantly heading for an irrelevance which will allow him to dump them by 2015.

Thirdly, the attack is based on a fundamentally incorrect premise. “He is still seeking to separate himself out from a toxic Tory brand”, writes Woodward. Well, some news for you, Shaun: we are no longer in a place where we can pin the “toxic brand” tag on them. The Tories didn’t fail to gain an overall majority because their brand was still toxic: that part of the operation was a success. They will not bring back unpleasant policies such as section 28, because they know the world has changed. What they failed to do was to go the whole hog in taking on vested interests in the party, and to come up with a convincing, coherent policy program to underpin it, which could win over the country. But they did detoxify the brand, otherwise they could not have come so far.

It’s worth listening to Jerry Hayes, a former leftish Tory colleague of Woodward’s, in a rather amusing piece on the memo: 

“the idea that the British people are going to be persuaded that Cameron is an old fashioned rightwinger is almost as deluded as a Labour leadership who are remotely considering it. Tory back benchers, grass roots and the rightwing press are constantly whinging that he’s an old lefty.” 
Woodward is no fool. He is a competent administrator of long years of experience who made a decent fist of Northern Ireland, and can claim a good insight into the functioning of the Tory political machine. The problem is that it is the Tory machine of more than ten years ago, which has as much relevance to the current machine as Ed’s operation does to that of Tony Blair on arrival in Downing Street.

Lance Price, in his excellent “Spin Doctor’s Diary”, gives an good insight into Woodward through his account of his defection; that he is a decent, right-minded moderate – if one with a slightly high opinion of himself – who was genuinely disgusted with the direction of his then party. The problem is that it is not the same party as the one he left, not even close. The final error seems to be that he is still projecting onto the Tories the things that made him leave the party.

Right-wing does not scare normal people like it scares us, Shaun. The public, unlike the party, the Guardian’s readership or the Westminster commentariat, does not spend so much time worrying about left and right. The swing voters we need to cultivate worry simply about which politicians will deal with law and order, immigration and welfare, those very areas where you argue we have to separate ourselves from the Tories.

Finally, although Shaun is running the attack operation, this is just a memo, right? But it would not be the first time that we had wrongly differentiated ourselves from the Tories in the very areas which the public see as crucial: for example, our economic and tax strategy over most of the last year has seemingly yet to convince the public, despite our poll lead. It is good to have dividing lines; it is fatal to be on the wrong side of them.

Sunder Katwala and the IPPR’s Mark Stears
argued yesterday that we shouldn’t worry about this memo because Ed will not follow this advice anyway. We must hope, for all our sakes, that they’re right.

STOP PRESS: M'learned colleague Dan Hodges has kindly reproduced the whole memo at the New Statesman, here.

This post first published at Labour Uncut, and featured in the New Statesman's Best of the Blogs.


  1. It is bordering on comicial that Labour is so out of touch on immigration. Gillian Duffy syndrome? We do not all live in the Cotswolds, BTW it is not colour based. Who was the idiot who thought allowing 2 million Poles in overnight with no provision for education, housing, health & welfare would not be noticed?

  2. Well, to be fair Ed Miliband has been better on acknowledging there is a problem here than on other areas. But yes, there are certainly those in the party who are not "getting it" on immigration.

  3. Laura Norder is another pitfall, yes some rednecks want to flog 'em and hang 'em (as evinced by the backlash after the "riots") but many ex Labour are now vehemently anti-plod.

  4. Labour and the Tories can jump and dance we cannot stop the Poles coming here nor the French or the Germans. The question was of course why were so many Asian allowed into this country when as we know labour decided not to build any social housing, something to with mortgages and banking I suspect.


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