By David Talbot
After months of agonised internal debate about how to deal with David Cameron, Labour finally decided its strategy and unleashed the much-anticipated attack.
David the chameleon made his first appearance in a Labour broadcast in April 2006. This version of David Cameron was clearly intended to display a creature that was willing to turn any colour in order to win votes.
Labour revealed it would use the theme relentlessly, even after polling day. It was to be followed up with mobile phone ringtones, pod casts and downloads for iPods. Labour had finally found the attack that would destroy this young upstart, who was the first Tory leader in a decade to move the polls in favour of the Conservatives.
Sadly for Labour, the attack failed to chime with the electorate. The party went on to lose over 300 seats, whilst the Conservatives had their best set of local election results since 1992.
Thus began Labour’s convoluted attempts to develop a line of attack that actually inflicts damage upon David Cameron. The chameleon attack failed because Cameron was desperate to emphasise that the Tories had changed, and Labour pushed the message for him.
Contempt no doubt drove much of Labour’s early attempts to tarnish the now-prime minister. Who was this hitherto-largely-unheard-of Tory to take on the might of New Labour?
While Blair rightly recognised that Cameron was by far the most dangerous opponent he had yet faced, the brooding Brownites harboured more sinister ideas. The then-prevailing consensus within their camp was that Brown held a deeper, more relevant understanding of the challenges facing Britain than a young man who seemed to think he could glide to power on a mix of media spin and personal charm.
This isn’t to say that only the Brownites got it wrong. The then-rising stars of New Labour included such future cabinet ministers as James Purnell, Liam Byrne and Jim Murphy.
They released (amid much fanfare and backed to the hilt by the Labour pressure group Progress) a somewhat spurious attack on Cameron linking him to George W Bush. The publication of the document revealed a deep nervousness among senior Blairite figures over Cameron’s confident leadership and an awkward desire to smear him.
Ultimately, Brown won the argument over how to tackle Cameron, though this may be due more to the fact that Blair was off the political scene than any overwhelming political acumen.
His line of attack was clear; Cameron was to be tarred as a “public relations man” with policies that favoured his “rich friends”.
It was late 2009 in a Commons exchange when Brown explicitly mentioned Cameron’s education, his “playing fields of Eton” jibe opening up a debate about whether or not a politician’s background is ripe for ridicule. Many Labour strategists, and indeed ordinary Labour party members, believed the disastrous Crewe and Nantwich by-election the year before ought to have put paid to these attempts at class warfare.
Fast forward to the Miliband era and the confusion is self-evident. The leak of Shaun Woodward’s strategy document highlighted a desire among Labour’s top brass to paint Cameron as a traditional Tory. This misses a key observation; namely that being seen as right wing isn’t necessarily a negative for the prime minister. Indeed, he has come under a barrage of criticism from his own side for not being conservative enough.
The document, released around the time of the summer riots, when much of the prime minister’s hard-line rhetoric chimed with the public, displayed a startling lack of insight. There has got to be an acceptance on the left that the right wing rhetoric employed by the Conservatives, or inanely labelling them “right wing”, is not damaging in itself.
What happened to the Labour machine that was brutally effective at sniffing out the weaknesses in a Tory leader? John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were all dispatched with minimal or no fuss, though it is fair to say that their many inadequacies certainly smoothed the process. But this early success was possible because Blair, the party and Gordon Brown were united in their ruthlessness. This is no longer the case and there ought to be serious concern that there is no coherent strategy.
Blair wanted to treat Cameron with respect, Brown was dismissive and Miliband is confused. As a party we have to concede that we have struggled to land a blow on Cameron, in almost seven years of his leadership, and recognise that he is a skilful manipulator of his image.
This is another test for Ed Miliband and it is one he must pass. It will be interesting to see if he resists the temptation to disappear into the party’s ancient refuges, or genuinely lands a blow on his political foe. There is a strong indication that the Labour movement is still searching for leadership and direction on just how to attack David Cameron.
David Talbot is a political consultant.