Our class based attacks on Cameron are missing the mark

by Peter Watt

To paraphrase Sun Tzu in The Art of War, you need to know your enemy. But does Labour know who David William Donald Cameron is? Understanding him, his relationship with voters and his party is an important part of Labour’s preparation for the tough elections to come.

I suspect that while we think that we understand him, we are deluded. Instead we are judging him through our own partisan prism, which is in contrast to much of the electorate. Ask most Labour party folk what they think of Cameron and they will emphasise his class. They will talk of Eton and the Bullingdon club, of the baronets in his lineage and the millions he has in the bank. This all adds up, so the theory goes, to one seriously out of touch (and obviously posh) politician.

But this emphasis on his “poshness” is currently cold comfort. Let us start with first principles: he is likeable and popular with voters. According to the latest You Gov poll for the Sunday Times, his approval ratings are at +2, with 48% saying he is doing very well or fairly well. Nearly one in five Labour 2010 voters agree. And popular leaders tend to win elections more often than not. As importantly, according to a Populus poll, in early May, Cameron is comfortably beating the other party leaders on leadership attributes like “standing up for Britain”, “determination” and “competence”. It is true that Ed does have a lead on “shares my values” and “on my side”, but these leads are small.

Even Cameron’s fiercest critics would have to acknowledge that he looks like a leader; despite the recent high fives with Obama making for uncomfortable viewing. In simple terms, he looks in charge and has established himself remarkably quickly as a world, as well as a national, leader.

As if we needed reminding, the recent Scottish elections showed that leadership matters when it comes to winning elections. How voters, particularly non-tribal or floating voters, feel about their leaders is clearly a strong determinant in deciding how they cast their votes. We may laugh at Cameron’s attempt to decontaminate the Tory brand with photo shoots and folksy imagery. But it has had the effect of defining how he is seen by the electorate. Deborah Mattinson, speaking at the recent Progress annual conference, quoted a discussion at a focus group. Cameron and the cuts were being discussed when someone said “but he loves his family” and everyone agreed. It might seem shallow to hardened politicos, but “David Cameron the family man” has struck a chord for many and has positively influenced the way that they feel about him.

He has weaknesses; it’s just that our class based attacks are missing the mark. They are stopping us being objective and “knowing our enemy”. I remember that when Cameron first became the leader of the Conservatives, there was some discussion between Blair and Brown over how to handle him. Tony was always clear that Cameron was the most dangerous Tory leader that he had had to face. He felt that if he was given a chance to define himself then he would be formidable and could win an election.

Tony always strongly argued against full frontal attacks on Cameron, because he felt that people liked him and didn’t see him as a “nasty Tory”. Cameron has poor attention to detail, so Tony wanted to spend time exposing him as shallow and superficial. For instance he was prone to arrogance and could get irritated and flustered if challenged. But Tony lost the argument, and the forces of class war were unleashed with predictable consequences.

We also forget that much of his own party does not yet trust him. Remember back to the heady days of 2007 when Gordon was riding high in the polls? David Cameron was visiting Africa while his own constituency was flooded and spent the summer battling his own party over grammar schools. As we started conference season his position looked vulnerable.

The point is that there are those in his party who do not trust him. They don’t like the green stuff, commitments on third world debt or the ring fencing of the NHS budget. They don’t like the way that he has concentrated power around him and his team. For them, the big society is nonsense that points towards some serious strategic mistakes that saw millions of pounds of campaign funds and double digit poll leads squandered in May of last year. It might not matter now, but in the last fractious year or so of this parliament it will. The shape of the next Tory manifesto, the tone of voice that is to be taken and the priorities for his second term will be fiercely fought over. Liam Fox is already on manoeuvres and we can expect more as the countdown to an election gets closer.

But, going back to that May Populus poll, it is clear what the Tories will do with Ed. They will paint him as a bit weird and out of his depth. They will talk about his lack of economic competence contrasted with their man’s leadership qualities. Labour will need to counter this of course, and fast. But what will they say about Cameron? Labour needs to decide, because class based attacks are, not surprisingly, missing their mark.

Meanwhile, voters’ perceptions of our leaders, being established right now, will determine where votes are cast over the years to come. The clock is ticking.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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17 Responses to “Our class based attacks on Cameron are missing the mark”

  1. hometruths says:

    A useful analysis, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    The Tory mistakes on the detail of their policies can be combined with a reflection of their background to devastating effect.

    The fact that Cameron, Osborne et al are part of a super-rich clique with no real feeling for how (even middle class) people live is still a massive weapon in our favour, and often the reason for their mistakes.

    One of Ed’s best PMQ performances is still his attack on him for scrapping child benefit for higher rate taxpayers. He painted him as not only a bungler who couldn’t explain his policy properly but also totally incapable of understanding why it would hurt even reasonably well off people.

    On the NHS too they risk looking like they are willing to ram through unpopular changes because ‘rich people like them’ don’t really care about, or use, the NHS anyway.

    Ed’s mindless Bullingdon jibes are embarrasing, so any attack needs to be about policy not character, but the fact is it’s true: this is, largely, a cabinet of posh millionaires who don’t share even middle class people’s struggles – and we shouldn’t be scared of pointing it out.

  2. Robert says:

    I’m sorry, but the labour grassroots are incapable of hearing your message at the moment. Please try again in a decade.

  3. Paul says:

    About 25% of this analysis is ok. Yes, it is vital to understand the enemy, and yes, we should not Cameron on the basis of his class alone.

    But Cameron and his coterie’s class has a direct impact upon the way in which the country is being misgoverned, and upon the lack of deliverability/realism/common sense on many of the policy initiatives now being pushed through.

    To separate Cameron’s class motives from what the impact of those class motives is an incoherent strategy, to say the least.

    For a more sensible understanding of the enemy, please proceed directly to http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2011/04/01/the-new-conservative-regime-modelling-the-enemy/

  4. iain ker says:

    ** Remember back to the heady days of 2007 when Gordon was riding high in the polls? **

    Let me think… I’m trying hard… still not coming to me… nope. Sorry, my bad.

    ** It is clear what the Tories will do with Ed. They will paint him as a bit weird and out of his depth. **

    No need, ‘Ed’ is doing that very nicely all by himself. But thanks anyway.

    ** because class-based attacks are, not surprisingly, missing their mark. **

    Well quite. But come on, cut yourselves some slack – nasty, nasty, Tories, themurdochpress, coots, and cabinetfulloftoffs are the very glue that is holding the tattered remnants of the TUCLabour Party together.

  5. Gary Barnett says:

    I agree that simply banging on about “Class” isn’t going to do it, but I do think it’s an issue that can be combined with the shallow, superficial and arrogant. He’s “posh” in a “Tim nice but dim” way.

    I liked your allusion to the Art of War – the LP could learn a lot from chapter one.

    The key to leadership is: the Way (Your philosophy), seasons (changing factors that we can’t necesarily control), terrain (unchanging factors we can’t control), leadership (Come on, Ed! Let’s have some of that!), and discipline (which we can’t really have untill we’ve nailed down the Way and Leadership).

    Now is the time to begin attacking the slap-dash, superficial policies of the right. The NHS reforms are a screw-up, it’s increasingly clear that the public sector is being shafted to pay for the recovery, and there’s a compelling case to be made for a smarter more moderate response to the deficit.

    But goodness me, as a labour party member I’m asking myself “Where the hell is our leadership?”

  6. Simon says:

    With regard to the YouGov poll, it’s true that the most recent poll gives him an approval rating of +2 but this has been ticking up in the last month or two, owing to positive coverage for his ‘decisiveness’ on Libya, the success of No2AV (and particularly of the Tories’ intervention in the campaign) and the photocalls with Obama.

    Go back to early April and his rating is -9. In early March it was -11. This was the culmination of a fairly clear downward trend in his approval, which (for example) stood at +20 on 5 August last year, and +8 in October. We’ll see if the recent uptick is temporary or permanent, but even then it does not reach the heights of his early months in office.

  7. Forlornehope says:

    Sorry Peter, looks like most of the Labour party are off supporting the Egyptian revolution; boating down de Nile. What is needed from Labour is some straight talk on Tax and Spend. We have to commit to spending more on benefits and services than the LibCons and raising the taxes of the top half of the income bracket (that’s everyone on or above £25000 a year) to pay for it. Until then it’s all bulls**t

  8. paul barker says:

    If Labour began from principles instead of ” my Class right or wrong” you wouldnt have had this problem in the first place. You all accept that hostility based on gender or ethnicity is wrong in principle but when it comes to Class, suddenly, prejudice is OK.

  9. Henrik says:

    Nice to see that someone among the comrades has realised that the Great Class War only matters to middle-class kids with put-on Estuary accents selling Socialist Worker and Polly Toynbee. I don’t think the Labour leadership yet realises that, to the average Brit, they look considerably weirder and further from the norm than Cameron and Osborne do. I find it hard to imagine Ed Milliband or Ed Balls creating the vanguard party to mobilise the masses, somehow.

    Interesting to note that, as usual, all the rhetoric is about attacking the Tories. Just once, please, comrades, could you try and produce something positive, optimistic and inspiring – perhaps a description of the sort of society and the sort of country you want to help the great British public create and inhabit?

    The thing is, Opposition is not just saying that the other side are bad, or a gang of tossers – it actually should be about articulating an alternative vision, or approach – and then making the linked arguments about why it’s better than what’s currently on offer and how it could be made to happen.

    Now, I’m probably not going to vote for the Labour vision, but I don’t know, yet, because I don’t know what it is. Contextual analysis suggests it’s going to be some dreadful statist interfering-in-my-business incompetent miserablist managerial hell, but I don’t know – I am willing to be inspired for the common good, I am willing to be enthused if someone describes to me a. where they think we should go and b. how we’re going to get there and c. why this is good for me and mine, but I suspect I’m going to be waiting for a long time.

  10. Robert Eve says:

    Too right!!

    We don’t like his green stuff, the hopelessly large aid budget or his desire to stay in the EU.

    Oh for a proper Conservative PM.

  11. iain ker says:

    hometruths says
    The Tory mistakes on the detail of their policies can be combined with a reflection of their background to devastating effect. The fact that Cameron, Osborne et al are part of a super-rich clique with no real feeling for how (even middle class) people live is still a massive weapon in our favour (and sundry similar posts)


    Pathetic, really.

    How about – instead – coming up with sensible, realistic, intelligent policies that will improve the lot of the people of this country – a lot sadly depleted by 13 years of TUCLabour misrule.

  12. Uncle Bob says:

    I think that Peter Watt is bang on the money in his analysis here, bu the comments posted so far indicate why Labour seems doomed to failure here. You WANT to hate him because his parents were rich. It’s quite petty. I voted conservative for the first time in 2010 (I’d originally voted Labour at my first GE in 97 and again in 2001, abstained in 05), it didn’t matter to me that he went to Eton, was a member of the Bullingdon club at Oxford, that he was a millionaire, etc. I really couldn’t give a monkeys. And really if any sort of voter should be susceptible to class warfare it should be someone like me. I’m white, working class, from a mining family in the Rhondda, the very epitomy of a Labour heartland. I want to get on in life, have a nice job, make some mone, have a nice house (That I own! Renting is rubbish.). In the 1980’s, people like me were wooed by Thatcher’s Tories who understood the aspirational desires that many ordinary people held. Blair recognised this and brought them over to your side. We actually believed that ‘things can only get better’. Sadly for the country, he left Brown as Chancellor for far too long and you as a party and we as a country are now paying the price. If Labour want to get anywhere you need to stop fretting about how many zeroes there are in Cameron and Osborne’s bank balances and decide what you stand for and where you would make your public sector cuts (apart from the £20 billion on the NHS which you seem to have amnesia regarding. Do that and learn from your mistakes and maybe some time in the future people like me may trust you again. It might take a long time though.

  13. william says:

    If Labour wants to win a future election,the party needs to be led by a public school educated,Oxbridge type, male or female,white or black,with no connection to the Scottish labour party or the the trade unions.It would also be useful if that person had no connection with the failed economic policies of you know who.Class?The Old Etonians won the FA cup TWICE.

  14. Merseymike says:

    The problem is that in Blair supposedly ‘bringing people in to our side’ (he didn’t other than in 97 – in 01 and 05 there were large scale Tory abstentions and LD transfers respectively) – he carried out the sort of policies which pleased those ‘people’ but then led to core Labour voters drifting away, mostly to abstention

  15. AmberStar says:

    Gordon Brown made an understandable choice, that he didn’t want his children exposed to the glare of publicity. Therefore, despite he & Sarah having had tragedy & challenge in their family life, the public didn’t think of Gordon as a family man. This made it much easier for the media & vicious bloggers to wage a hate campaign against him. After all, it wasn’t ‘personal’ because he was a politician not a person.

    Ed Miliband should avoid that trap. Anybody Ed’s age who aspires to be PM, knows that his family life is going to be of interest to potential voters. And it is Ed’s best opportunity to not be seen as ‘weird’. Justine (& their children) could be a huge asset for Ed & plenty of sincere ‘family man’ stuff would quickly dispel that ‘weird’ tag. Breakfast TV & other soft, sofa interviews where he talks about the kind of society he wants his kids to grow up in, his hopes for their education etc. would make a big difference to his image with the wider public. Any time that Justine agrees to accompany him on public appearances, he should be delighted – she has lots of voter appeal, IMO.

    Once he’s established his ‘credentials’ as a ordinary family man, the next layer on top should be showing he is able to step-up to big occasions & appear Prime Ministerial. Arranging such opportunities will be difficult than the other stuff but a few that are well covered in the media (not easy to achieve) are all that’s needed.

    The British public are pretty easy going. It doesn’t take a lot to make them like you… as this article points out, they quite like David Cameron even though he’s a vain, PR man & a total pillock. 😉

  16. iain ker says:

    Amberstar – re your suggestion of sticking Brand-New-Improved-Family-friendly-Ed on ITV Daybreak’s sofa

    You clearly didn’t read Henrik’s comments above.

    Might I suggest you do.

  17. AmberStar says:

    @ ian ker

    Yes, I did read it, actually. Henrik tells us he votes on policies. Good for him, very admirable. But this article isn’t about policies, it’s about perception of Party leaders so Henrik’s views are interesting but not pertinent.

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