Thursday, 6 October 2011

Where the Tories are weak

While we are still in the throes of reforming our Party (although that debate is pretty much over, it seems) and defining our policies, we are in some ways a little hamstrung. However, there still is one thing that we can do well on an everyday basis: be a good opposition and attack the government. As they are the senior partner in the coalition, and while we are in Tory conference week, it seems appropriate to focus on the Tories. And, after all, their junior partner may well not even be around to worry about after 2015, at least as part of the government.

This requires a certain looking at our opponents with calm and rational eyes, rather than seeing them as the evil Tories, bent on destroying our country (although they might do a good impression of the latter). While on the one hand, we accept that all Shadow portfolios need to spend their lives bashing their counterparts, there are some which are more likely to bear fruit than others. And, to get maximum impact, we need to understand where they are stronger as well as where they are weaker, so as not to spend our time banging our heads against a brick wall. Or rather as Sun Tzu put it in The Art Of War:
"Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoid the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.”
It may sound obvious, but we sometimes waste much time and energy trying to argue the toss on arguments we are losing.

1. Hit them where their personnel are weak 

Where we have found weak politicians in place, as we have showed on the NHS (although we need a better argument there) and very much on the forestry selloff, we get traction. Because Lansley and Spelman made major mistakes in their first few months in office, and one can’t afford to do that as a Cabinet minister. Warsi is regularly accident-prone in a way a senior player shouldn’t be. These kind of Tories should be our targets and we should hit them mercilessly.

On the other hand, we need to be much cleverer in hitting their more competent members: Cameron, Osborne and Gove may irritate us, but they are all shrewd. Hague is capable of misjudgements, but he is no longer the accident-prone fool we remember from his tenure as leader. Theresa May, lest we forget, was the first to observe that the Tories needed detoxifying. And we wanted to write off Ken Clarke, but we shouldn’t: he is, after all, the most experienced member of the team. All these politicians have weaknesses too, but we need to seek them out and work on them over the long term rather than looking for short-termist attacks.

2. Hit them where their policies involve vested interests or obsessive opinions among their activists

Believe it or not, most ministers will try and do things which they think will both work and be popular. For this reason, sometimes politicians of different stripes end up doing similar things, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be that there is only one sensible policy for the country. But politicians diverge from this in two circumstances: if their vested interests will not wear it; and if their activists will not wear it. In the first, the City reforms are the obvious target. They will not reform properly because they fear a backlash from their donors. In the second, there is one issue where you are almost guaranteed not to get a sensible answer from a Tory activist (or much of the Tory press, for that matter): Europe. Ask most Tories about Europe, their eyes redden and they start to babble. All rationality goes out of the window.

That is not to say that there is a great appetite in the country for all things European; there is not. But where the Tories misjudge the country is in the question of degree. They believe that the average Briton is rabidly anti-Europe, as they are. But they are not. They are mildly anti-Europe, when they think about it, which is not that often. It is an important difference. It is why we are in Europe, not out of it, and partly why the Tories under Hague started to look “swivel-eyed and perpetually angry”, as the Economist memorably described them.

We should not rush out with a massive pro-Europe agenda. But there are moments in history where leadership is required, and it’s clear that the Tories are too hobbled by the subject to provide it. One is coming our way, and we need to play it intelligently.

3. Hit them for their personal weaknesses as a group of politicians

Now, each politician has professional weaknesses, but a group of politicians is also weak in the things that bind them together: similar backgrounds are likely in most political parties, despite the fact that a more heterogeneous team is likely to be stronger: more bases are covered. For example, one of Labour’s current weaknesses is its collective lack of experience in the world of business, as the BBC’s Andrew Neil cruelly picked up on with Liam Byrne last week. But the Tories have one too: they are the Cabinet of millionaires. Last week in Liverpool I spent an hour in the company of an independent-minded right-wing journalist, whose views I respect, and who agreed that this was a big problem for them.

Now, there is nothing more fun for most of us to have a good, honest bit of class war knockabout over this: but we should absolutely avoid this temptation. We must be far, far cleverer. Firstly because it is wrong – inverse snobbery is quite as ugly as its opposite – and secondly because the public will see it as such.

No, the problem is not that they are posh: the problem is that their poshness makes it virtually impossible to understand the problems of an everyday world in which they have never lived. This makes for poor decisions. Now, Smiths-listening Cameron tries to do a reasonable impression of a Tory who understands real life, but it’s laughably skin-deep for a man who has spent his life with the county set. Attacks stick when people can see they have truth to them. So, we must, must push the out-of-touch argument at every opportunity, while resisting the temptation to make this about class. We must ensure they are asked the prices of a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. We must ensure that the public knows that none of them uses the public services they expect others to. And this is the real issue, not where they come from, what they inherited or where they went to school, because none of these things did they get a chance to choose. It is their choices since then.

So, the Tories are in a strong position in many ways: despite their numerous failures, they are in government and their morale is high. They have some talent on their front bench and some of their policies are working. Whether we like it or not, their economic plan may well work out before the election, and it will be tweaked if it really seems to be flatlining growth for too long. But we can and should be clever with our attacks. And we can still bring them down.

This post first published in my fortnightly column at LabourList

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