Brand the Tories right wing? I Woodwouldn’t

by Rob Marchant

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.

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 strategy than was being projected in the run-up to the general election. However, for a whole raft of reasons, Woodward has badly miscalculated.

First, he has missed that, in the current environment, being seen as right wing is not necessarily a bad thing electorally. 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 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 the polling indicates that people 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.

Third, 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.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.


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16 Responses to “Brand the Tories right wing? I Woodwouldn’t”

  1. Nick says:

    You’re still 10 years behind the curve. Imigration and the fact that Labour allowed in hoards of low skill migrants, who competed for and won the jobs against Labour supporters has done you in there.

    No, the real issue is debts. All of the debts. 6,800 billion of debts on a government income of 600 bn. That’s without bailing out the client state on top. At least another 10,000 bn [all numbers in current terms] To put that in context, banks rightly won’t lend to you more than 3 or 4 times earnings. The state is way way beyond that.

    The state can always print money, but even that doesn’t work. Almost all of the debts are linked to inflation. Print money, and you get inflation, which just makes the debts bigger.

    That’s the future. You need to have a solution to it, or the problem will drive everything.

  2. tokyo nambu says:

    Actually, I think it indicates that Woodward is a Tory sleeper, working to ensure the destruction of the Labour Party. Either than, or he’s entirely deluded and still attempting to but Norman Tebbit back in his box.

    If the Labour Party were to run an election based on “hey! The Tories are to our right on law and order, immigration and welfare! Vote for us for open borders, community sentencing and improved out-of-work benefits for young single parents!” then the Tories wouldn’t even need to campaign; Labour would be annihilated. The rest of Woodward’s memo is about issues that there are no votes in (environmental issues may exercise da yoof, but they don’t vote and no-one over 30 who is a potential Labour voter has it as a priority) or that are settled and never to trouble parliament again (gay rights? as an electoral decision issue? in 2015? Behave).

    As Stears says, Miliband isn’t an idiot, and he’ll bin this as soon as he reads it, assuming that he even gets past the title. But it does Labour no good to have the Observer proclaiming a policy shift towards electoral irrelevance, even if it doesn’t happen: that’s the sort of self-thrown mud that sticks. If Woodward is going to write silly memos, he needs to have the discipline to not then leak them to “friendly” newspapers in the quiet new season. It’s a bad front page for Labour because it makes the party look like “one more heave, comrade” leftists on the 1980s, because it makes it look like Miliband is taking advice from half-wits and because it shows, yet again, that Labour doesn’t have the discipline to stop its leadership from leaking and briefing.

  3. swatantra says:

    Cameron belongs to a new breed of ‘compssionate conservatives’ and his daily contact with Clegg will make him even more so. The rest of his Party though are die hard Conservatives. So Woodward shoulfd have no fears about paintng the Tories as toffs and rednecks because that image will always be in the voters minds. Cameron will suffer the same fate as Tony did when the Party thought he was drifting towards a mish mash of a rightwing agenda, when Tony was only just reacting to events as PM. As Cameron distances himself more from his Party, he could find himself replaced by DD before the next election.
    But its worth listening to Woodward because as a former Tory, he should know what the best strategy is against his former colleagues.

  4. MJL says:

    I really really really hope this is not going to be our strategy. The electorate do not share this dislike of the Conservatives, so calling them right wing will not make voters desert the Tories and sign up to Labour. If we want to win we need to come up with a set of policy proposals that appeal to a broad spectrum of the British people. THE ONLY WAY!

  5. Odd day to declare the Tories aren’t going to bring back unpleasant policies: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/aug/28/anti-abortion-lobby-reforms

  6. Tussyisme says:

    Woodward’s a multi-millionaire property-portfolio owing guy with a butler, for goodness sake. Enough said, surely? He’d be more credible if he argued the urgent case for a tax on land – LVT (land-value tax) – and challenged Osborne’s ‘tax evasion bad’, ‘tax avoidance fine’ strategy. After all, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ that matters.

  7. tokyo nambu says:

    Emma, you’re assuming that abortion is a straight-forward left/right goodies/baddies issue. Aside from being an issue that is simply not on the radar for many voters, there are plenty of principled Labour voters (and MPs) for whom abortion is troubling or more, and plenty of principled Tory voters (and MPs) for whom women’s rights are paramount. Assuming that you could propound abortion rights as a Labour value and use that to beat up the nasty Tories is too simplistic.

  8. @Nick, it’s true that debt is a problem, but I’m not sure I see the relevance here. By the next election, I doubt it still will be.

    @Tokyo: Can’t really disagree with what you say. Especially about this being a bad headline because it shows us to be undisciplined. I hope you’re right that it will be binned, but according to another piece today there is an ad campaign planned. Btw, alternative explanation: the leak may also be because Labour *is* taking this seriously and someone with common sense wanted to stop it before it got too far.

    @Swatantra: Disagree, I’m afraid. Almost all successful party leaders are more towards the centre than their parties, so Cameron is where he needs to be. And there is virtually zero chance of him being replaced before the next election.

    @MJL: Wholly agree.

    @Emma: well, you rather twist my words. I don’t mean – obviously – that the Tories will never come up with a policy that we don’t like (they’re rather good at doing that). However, I think you’re taking this as an ominous portent of a general backward step in social legislation, and I’m not sure I buy that.

    Firstly I’d say be careful with abortion as an issue: although you and I personally might baulk at these proposals, abortion-related bills often get a free vote, and there are a number of Labour MPs who will support them (note that this is backed by Frank Field and probably others). Don’t forget also that there is a Catholic minority who have a very long and distinguished history in the Labour Party membership, including a couple of recent General Secretaries and numerous cabinet ministers. It’s a bit too delicate to just try and shoe-horn it into a left-right issue – it isn’t.

    If you want a more specific definition of what I mean, what I do think is very unlikely to happen is the repealing of Labour’s progressive social legislation in a whipped, left-right vote (like, say repealing civil partnerships) because that revives the old toxicity and the unfairness of it would actually be quite a powerful weapon for us against the Tories. I’m sure many younger Tories would not be happy with such a thing, either, and I think Cameron is fully aware of this bear trap.

  9. Rob mate, I quoted you directly. How can I have twisted your words?!

    I also didn’t make this a left/right issue as that’s a particular bugbear of mine (though of course there are economic factors involved secondarily, primarily this is a social issue).

    On the other hand I have no compunction with making it an unpleasant/pleasant issue. I’m Also extremely happy to be on my side of that line, the opposit side from Nadine Dorries, the ministers bringing this in and, yes, Frank Field.

    Field’s faith is personal to him. If he doesn’t want to get an abortion, no one ahould ever force him to. But when he places his faith above the decent counselling of vulnerable women, based on nothing more than a provably falsifyable contention of bias, I’ll happily condem him.

  10. While I’m at it, I’m happy to condem my spelling/typing. Bloody phone.

  11. Henrik says:

    I find myself oddly conflicted here. One side of me thinks it hilarious that a preposterous figure like the Sainted Shaun has become a leading Labour strategist – and, oh what a hopeless strategy he’s developed – the other regrets the fact that every time it looks as if HM Loyal Opposition has finally got it together to start doing its job, some apparatchik shoots the party in the foot and it’s da capo again.

    MJL has the right of it. You chaps really must get your heads together and start articulating some positive, attractive, optimistic – and above all, credible – reasons why in the name of the Purple Plastic Elvis anyone should vote for you. Mean-spirited sniping from the sidelines at the incumbents’ difficulties at dealing with what is generally seen as the toxic residue of 13 endless years of Brownian economics is not winning you any votes that I can see.

  12. @Emma: nice try! But you can’t wriggle out of it: if you make it a Labour-Tory issue, with it being a Tory bill and us against – which you are – you make it, ergo, a left-right issue. It ain’t. And neither do I think it is the shape of awful things to come. As a broad brush – to which I’m sure there are exceptions – history shows that Tory governments rarely overturn Labour’s social changes (and we rarely overturn their economic ones).

    Re your other comments, you are and I are on the same side, against Nadine and Frank. But on the wider issue, I don’t see this as a toehold for us to revive the “nasty party” label, I’m afraid – it’s clearly a losing strategy.

    @Henrik: can’t argue with much of that. My only reflection would be that I don’t think the “sniping from the sidelines” is the most prevalent criticism among the electorate. Although we’ve had positive moments over the last couple of months, on the negative aspects I think most of the time it’s that we seem ineffectual, muddled or simply that you can’t hear us at all.

  13. Real Chris says:

    @Rob

    Had you actually read the memo when you wrote this piece?

  14. I’m wriggling out of nothing. I write incessently about the difference between Left/Right and social issues which are non-economic (or not primarily economic).

    This government is dignifying what should have remined a backbench crusade. I call them on that and you on your contention that they aren’t overturning social change by doing so.

    Neither did I say it was a toehold for anything. You’re overreaching.

  15. @Emma: Well, in the end they haven’t overturned any social change, as of this morning the bill is apparently dead, according to the NS. Apart from the dumb arguments which collapsed under scrutiny, decent Tories saw the faint spectre of giving ground to those in their own party who would edge towards a US-style religious right politics, and didn’t like what they saw. So, again, I don’t expect there to be any significant rolling back of any of Labour’s social programme. They are continuing the historical precedent, as have done innumerable Tory governments before them.

    And sort that phone! Incessently? Dearie me.

  16. @Real Chris: I’m delighted you want to defend the memo. But would you like to be more explicit?

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