Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Labour might have done better to choose the old Stealers Wheel number, ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’, as their campaign song. Tony would have preferred the original but Alastair would probably have insisted on the cover version by Louise. Either way, the lyric paints a pretty accurate picture of the political landscape as they’d like it to be seen.
If the polls are right and New Labour has retained an impressive lead despite all the pain, anger and frustration of the past few years, then it’s thanks to Tony Blair’s continued success at straddling the middle ground, where the vast majority of voters are to be found. The opposition parties are left bewildered, struggling to understand why disillusionment with the government hasn’t translated into greater support for them. But they only have themselves to blame.
By stubbornly refusing to modernise, the Tories have allowed themselves to be marginalised out on the right, running scared of UKIP and their motley band of fellow travellers. That’s where we need to keep them and it’s a blessed relief that the old Tory rump doesn’t take much prodding to reveal itself for what it really is.
Under the strangely unambitious leadership of Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have contented themselves with posing a serious but patchy threat at a local level rather than mounting a major national challenge. Which is not to say they can be ignored. But fighting the Liberals is, as ever, a job that has to be undertaken principally at constituency level. They claim to have invented pavement politics but our MPs and activists have to show that we can play them at the own game and win.
Before it all starts to sound too easy, a note of caution. While marginalising the opposition is self-evidently good politics, it hasn’t been cost-free. It’s not just old Labour malcontents who believe that by, for example, trying to out-tough the Tories on immigration and appeasing the prejudices of the tabloid press the government has paid a high price in lost opportunities.
When Tony Blair eventually leaves No 10, Britain’s cultural conservatism and anti-European sentiments could be just as entrenched as they were when he arrived. I suspect that’s a view many of our own people would subscribe to and the days are gone when party members, activists and loyal supporters could be taken for granted. They need to be persuaded that the government has it in it to use a bold third term to start to turn things around.
Fortunately, while there’s still an election to win before there can be any third term, there are hopeful signs that it will be fought on a brave and radical manifesto. ‘Safety First’ made for a very successful but painfully dull campaign in 2001, as I remember to my cost. It won’t work again in 2005.
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right? No, come to think of it, Tony would never have agreed to it. It smacks too much of complacency, of regarding the other parties as a bit of a joke rather than a real threat. And those who wish he’d been a bit more courageous with the thumping majorities of 1997 and 2001 have to remember that the prime minister has always been convinced that the Tories are far from dead and buried and could easily re-emerge as a real opposition.
And he’s right, of course. Even in its current state, the Conservative party has to be taken seriously. Unlike William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard does have what it takes to be prime minister. Nobody can pretend he’s not up to the job. The only question is what kind of prime minister he’d make. Which is why the long campaign since Christmas – when at times it has seemed as if the election had already been called – was very good tactics.
It has given Tony Blair the chance to be seen focusing day-in, day-out on the domestic agenda and talking about all those things that really matter to voters. And it has also given Mr Howard a lot more exposure too. The more people see him, the more they’re reminded of his record in office and the more they can see that his politics haven’t changed since.
So why not take that to its logical conclusion and have Tony Blair face Michael Howard (and Charles Kennedy, of course) in a head-to-head debate on TV?
In the 2001 election it was part of my job as director of communications to tell the broadcasters that their dream of a televised leaders’ debate was just that, a dream. As a former BBC correspondent myself, it should have been a difficult thing to do. After all, I do believe that rigorous, lively political debate on TV and radio is essential for democracy and to counter ignorance, cynicism and apathy. My rejection of a leaders’ debate was seen as political expediency. The conventional wisdom says that such debates are never in the interests of the party in power.
As it happens, I think the democratic case against debates is actually a very strong one. They would undoubtedly distort the campaign, focusing a disproportionate amount of attention on a small number of gladiatorial clashes. I have no doubt that Tony Blair would wipe the floor with his opponents and that in 2005 political expediency would actually argue in favour of taking up the challenge. But consistency is a virtue and the party should continue to
Instead, Labour is right to use every other legitimate means to focus attention on Mr Howard and to ask the voters if they really want to see him in No 10 – although, personally, I’d lay off the derogatory posters. Was I the only person in Millbank who didn’t like the picture of William Hague in a Margaret Thatcher wig? To me, it’s the political equivalent of playground name-calling and I think it debases our positive appeal. But the pollsters and focus groups tell me it works, so maybe I’m being squeamish. I just feel we don’t need to portray Michael Howard as Fagin. Portraying him as Michael Howard will be enough to put voters off.
That positive appeal is vital in 2005, more so than in either of the past two elections. Labour can win in one of two ways. The electorate might well be willing to return the party to power with little or no enthusiasm on the grounds that there’s no real alternative. On the other hand, they can still be persuaded to do so with hope and in the expectation that Labour still has big and exciting plans for the future of Britain.
Every campaign is a mixture of the negative and the positive. Of course Labour should attack the Tories and expose their attempts to spread apathy and cynicism so they can enter No 10 through the back door. But the best counter to cynicism is hope. I don’t believe Tony Blair wants to win this election by default. He wants and deserves a positive mandate and that calls for a dynamic and forward-looking campaign in which Labour is not afraid to put a radical programme to the people and ask them to support it.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.