Wednesday, 24 October 2012

“Miliband booed.” How many more times do we want to see that headline?

Yesterday Mark Ferguson suggested that it might be the time to bring Alastair Campbell back to Labour. He’s right that we need someone with Campbell’s skills, but perhaps not to guide Labour’s social media strategy, as Mark suggests; rather, someone who will reliably raise their hand and get involved, whenever there is a potential media disaster to be avoided.

Campbell’s great strengths were always his instinct for good and bad press; and his willingness to challenge his boss. To say: don’t do that, they will kill you. And perhaps, just perhaps, Miliband could use someone with similar antennae.

One clear problem with Saturday’s TUC march, like the previous one in March last year, was the lack of clarity of the objective. Many were there for different reasons. While “cuts, but not so far, so fast” is Labour’s official, defensible, position, “No Cuts” banners predictably dominated the march.

It is a respectable position: but it is not Labour’s official position. So Miliband, if he went, was always going to be forced to defend a distinct position in front of 100,000 marchers. It was never going to end well.

And another predictable result of this divergence in aims was that it was easy for others to take the “no cuts” element and brand the whole TUC with it. In the process of trying to bridge that gap, we make the normally semi-bonkers Matthew Sinclair of the Taxpayers Alliance sound positively
“Most of the public accept and understand that, well, we can debate what needs to be cut, we can have a debate at the margins about the timing and the extent, but there do need to be serious cuts in public spending”.
The irony is that this Sinclair has pinpointed exactly what Labour Party policy is: a debate with the government about the timing and the extent. It is also what the majority of Britons think:
YouGov reports that 55% think the way the government is making cuts is necessary, versus 32% unnecessary. These are the facts, however much we might dislike them. And they are roughly in line with what Miliband said, rather than what the marchers did.

But the real issue, perhaps surprisingly, is more important than the misalignment of basic objectives between Miliband and marchers. Some have even argued that he
does this kind of thing on purpose, that to gain strength by distancing himself from the unions. But it is a weak argument, because he does not.

It is weak because most viewers will not have even noticed the fact that he was arguing a different case. They will have just heard the boos.

The real reason Miliband’s presence at the march was unhelpful for Labour is not about the fundamental contradiction between Labour’s position and that of, we must suppose, the majority of the marchers.

It is simply in the squandering of scarce media coverage for the Leader of the Opposition that it represents.

Look at it this way: imagine you are an adviser. Your leader is a political jewel, whom you must make sparing use of, build up as a statesman-in-waiting and shield from political harm. Also, as Leader of the Opposition, you are afforded a small slice of media coverage every year (and in this unusual case of coalition, even less, because the junior partner gets more coverage than normal).

In those precious seconds of video-clip, you reach out directly to the public and have a brief chance to convince them that you are fit to be the next Prime Minister. You either make a good impression or a bad one and, very often, viewers are not even listening to what you are saying.

They are looking at generalities: the non-verbal communication, the tone, the atmosphere. It’s a primeval human instinct transplanted into a world of short attention spans; you follow the person who looks like they know what they’re doing. You want to see someone who is in charge; someone in control of the situation.

A party leader who is being booed by a crowd of people, whom onlookers might reasonably judge to be his own supporters, is none of these things. The message the scene sends is, “this man is not even in charge of his own lot”.

It’s unfair, but the media are not about being fair, they’re about getting a good story. And it’s not enough to say, “these people were probably a mixture of Trots and far-left activists, most of whom probably never voted Labour in their life”. These are distinctions which we forget that only the in-group – us – even has the information to make.

People see marching. They see Ed. They hear booing. They see a man embattled. They see disunity, not debate. They put two and two together and make five. The cruel irony is that things are not actually that bad; Miliband is unchallenged in his own party, a party which has a consistent ten-point lead in the polls, despite its potential softness.

It was just not like that out there on the march, you say. But just as on the March 26th demo last year, the reports depend largely upon whether you are part of the in-group (marchers: positive) or the out-group (those watching it on TV: negative). Appealing to which group will win us the election? The second.

It’s not just the clips and the headlines this time, where Miliband was probably rather lucky that the Sundays had Mitchell’s and Osborne’s troubles to focus on. It’s the monotonous regularity of the heckling by his own side:

TUC march, 26 March 2011:
Miliband booed (luckily lost in the greater disaster of the speech footage intercut with rioting). TUC conference, 13 September 2011: Miliband booed. Labour conference, 27 September 2011 : Miliband booed (at mention of Blair). TUC march, 20 Oct 2012: Miliband booed.

In short, since his election, he has probably been booed at most major gatherings of party or labour movement activists. Why, exactly, did we think that this one would be any different?

It is not the same, by the way, as Andrew Lansley being
jeered at the Royal College of Nursing. Lansley had to go there, he was representing the government. Incumbents expect to get booed every now and then. But the Leader of the Opposition does not have to endure these things.

And here is something that Campbell would surely at least have raised: whether it is a good idea, on balance, for the Leader of the Opposition to have to endure such headlines, where they can be clearly anticipated and avoided.

And if, that is, we genuinely want him to be something other than that: the Leader of the Opposition.

This post first published at LabourList and selected for Progress' What We're Reading list

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