This election needs a soapbox or an Irn Bru crate

18/04/2015, 11:47:04 AM

by Atul Hatwal

Paralysing fear has infected every aspect of the parties’ campaigns.

Strategists fear the voters, so they stage tightly controlled events, away from the truculent public. Junior staffers fear any slight mishap that might make the news, so even the most minor decision is dictated by a safety first doctrine.

And Ed Miliband and David Cameron fear everything and anything, otherwise they would not accept the counsel of caution from their advisers which shackles all that they do.

The result is an arid campaign, a dismal parade of media moments contrived for broadcasters that lack the incident and passion to galvanise anybody but the already committed.

A news vacuum is developing. The manifesto launches commanded attention earlier in the week, but now what?

The front pages are already drifting away from the election. Soon, as is always the way in politics, this lacuna will be filled with the grumbles of worried candidates and plotting leadership contenders, taking aim at their leaders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For the party bosses running the party campaigns, there is an alternative.

1992, which has already provided much of the template for this contest, also offers a lesson in how to fill that vacuum without the need to scramble out new half-baked policy announcements dreamt up the night before or to escalate the ferocity of personal attacks to shock a path into the news.

Imagine if one or more of the party leaders took a leaf out of John Major’s book and didn’t just do managed Q&As with pre-vetted, politically emasculated supporters, but actually went out to meet the British public on the high street, in the shopping centre and at the market.

If they went to where the public are, rather than hiding in a hall ringed with security, put down a soapbox, stood on it and spoke to real voters.

Jim Murphy is Scottish leader in no small part because of his one man campaign across Scotland in the independence referendum, speaking to the Scottish public from atop his Irn Bru crate.

There were baying nationalist mobs, protesters, eggs, but also, fabulous pictures for print and broadcast, personal guts and raw emotion.

The plaudits from journalists or every persuasion – right, left, nationalist and unionist – after the clip below was shared were extraordinary. It’s hard not admire Jim Murphy’s passion, resilience and commitment.

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The smaller parties should be careful what they wish for. It always ends badly for the kingmaker

16/04/2015, 09:57:12 AM

by Atul Hatwal

We are approaching peak minnow for the campaign. Yesterday the Lib Dems and Ukip launched their manifestos and this evening there is the five-way debate featuring the smaller parties minus Nick Clegg but inexplicably with Ed Miliband guest starring at the front of the coconut shy as the designated representative of Westminster’s failed big party duopoly.

But as much fun as the SNP, the Greens, Plaid and Ukip will have beating up on Ed Miliband the smaller parties should be careful what they wish for.

They might be eyeing eventual roles as kingmakers or junior partners in government, but history has a harsh lesson: it always ends badly.

In peacetime, every time there has been a coalition, confidence and supply agreement or any type of deal for support in the last 100 years, it has been electoral poison for the minor party.

On three occasions there have been coalitions in the last century and one period of less formal support to sustain a government.

All involved the Liberals, with the SNP and Plaid Cymru also becoming mired in the mess of the 1970s Callaghan government.

The results speak for themselves.

Minor party fall

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Labour’s blind spot on right to buy will prove costly

14/04/2015, 10:49:10 PM

by Atul Hatwal

Three words: right to buy. Three simple words that unhinge the Labour party.

The Tories have set the most obvious and well sign-posted trap for Labour by extending right to buy to social housing tenants. A trap that was first set over thirty years ago to lethal political effect.

As news of this latest 80’s revival broke online on Monday night, Labour activists, MPs and Labour supporting journalists tweeted themselves into angry apoplexy.

Meanwhile, the leadership ran for cover. Emma Reynolds, Labour’s shadow housing minister, released a statement with the headline, “Another uncosted, unfunded, unbelievable announcement from the Tories.”

The Tories’ sudden pledge to spend £8bn on the NHS might not be believable, but does anyone seriously think they will not extend right to buy? Come on.

Right to buy is more than just a housing policy; it embodies a set of values and delivers a precision targeted retail offer. Labour’s guttural online reaction demonstrates a desperate lack of understanding by the party on both counts.

In terms of values, right to buy is about aspiration and personal freedom: the dream of owning your own home and taking control of your life, outside of the purview of the welfare state.

The media debate about extending right to buy is not about technocratic policy but whether the parties are for or against home ownership, whether they believe the state should or should not allow people in social housing to buy their property.

Labour complaints about the policy might be well founded. It does indeed do nothing for the growing army of private renters who will not benefit.

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Labour’s manifesto launch went well but it’s tin ear on aspiration could prove costly

13/04/2015, 09:04:49 PM

by Samuel Dale

Labour’s manifesto launch went well. The focus on tackling the deficit was right and Ed Miliband’s performance was assured.

But on Tuesday it’s the turn of the Tories and how Labour responds to their retail offer will be critical to deciding the outcome of the election.

We already know one of the centre-pieces of the Tory prospectus: inheritance tax cuts were widely trailed across the media, over the weekend. And so far, Labour has seriously mishandled its response.

George Osborne first floated a £1m inheritance tax-free allowance in the autumn of 2007 when its popularity saw off the election that never was.

The latest plan removes family homes worth up to £1m from inheritance tax from 2017.

It comes hot on the heels of big cuts to inheritance taxes related to pensions and Isas.

The current inheritance tax rules offer a £325,000 individual allowance with an additional £325,000 transferable allowance from your husband or wife. In effect £625,000 can be passed tax free to a married couple’s children.

Labour has been keen to point out that only 4% of people will benefit from the changes. The IFS says “over 90%” of estates are unaffected.

The implication has been that only the rich will benefit and as such this can’t turn an election.

So why do the Tories think it is a big vote winner? The £1bn centre-piece of their manifesto.

Firstly, it gives a bottom-line financial incentive to the wealthy estates who will directly benefit. They are the better-off pensioners who vote in large numbers (and the Ukip vote the Tories desperately need back).

Secondly, and more importantly, it is about aspiration.

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This curious Tory campaign is coming to us from another country

13/04/2015, 09:06:27 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Famously, the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. In that country, they have naked women on Page 3 of The Sun. That publication peddles lies about football fans crushed on the terraces of Hillsborough. And claims to be able to determine the outcome of general elections.

That which largely went unquestioned in 1992 would not do so in 2015. The Sun has changed to survive in a changed country. In such a country, it may not necessarily follow that treatment for Ed Miliband akin to that which Neil Kinnock endured in 1992 will contribute to the same electoral outcome.

The fears about Kinnock that the Conservatives and their supporters in the media were then able to arouse chimed with underlying public perceptions. It may be that attacks like those of Michael Fallon on Miliband will again tap into deep seated fears about Labour.

Equally, reflecting on Miliband’s improving personal ratings, Damian Lyons Lowe, founder and chief executive of Survation, concluded, “people like the happy warrior”. If Fallon were mainlining fears in the same way that the Tories did during the 1992 campaign, we might expect Miliband’s ratings to be going in the other direction.

The Tory brand is also not as robust as it was in 1992. This weakness – the persistence of the “nasty party” perception – is one of the reasons that I have anticipated Labour victory this year. When brands have limited purchase, their capacity to impact how other brands are perceived is also undermined.

If you go round slinging dead cats on tables, people will think, “these are the kind of people who sling dead cats on tables”. Boris Johnson – whom David Aaronovitch recently described as being “like a man who breaks wind in a lift and everyone wonders what smells so good” – could sling a dozen dead cats on the table. And we’d all laugh. Then ask him to do it again.

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Week 2 of the campaign: the good, the bad and the ugly

12/04/2015, 11:25:54 AM

In a new feature for the general election, Uncut will be looking back at the end of each week at the good, the bad and the plain ugly of the campaign.

The good

Labour’s non-dom policy roll-out

This had everything: the element of surprise, backing from almost all sections of the media and public and a clear dividing line that placed the Tories on the side of one of the most egregiously privileged groups while Labour was the champion of the mainstream.

The way in which the Conservatives issued three press releases in 12 hours on this one issue illustrated the level of panic it generated.

And the muddled response that the Tories ultimately settled upon – criticising the micro-detail of the announcement while hawking around a partially edited video of Ed Balls from January this year – demonstrated how they crack under pressure.

The obvious move would have been to co-opt the policy, pretend this was something that had long been under consideration and use it to illustrate how we are all “in it together.”

It would have been a deft act of political ju jitsu, but instead, the much delayed Conservative response demonstrated an aching lack of judgement.

Once a Labour campaigner, always a Labour campaigner

He might be 82, but Lord Alf Dubs (standing on the left) is still pounding the streets for the party. Labour’s former MP for Battersea (1979-87) was out canvassing for Lee Sheriff in Carlisle yesterday, fresh from a visit to Scotland knocking up for candidates like Gregg McClymont. An example to all.

Samantha Cameron’s interview with the Mail on Sunday

The purpose of these soft focus spousal features is to humanise the leader, to open a window onto their home life. Normally, they fall short. They are too stilted, too focused on the politician with the spouse never rising above adjunct, even in their own interview.

This piece in last week’s Mail on Sunday is different. The candid manner in which Samantha Cameron discusses her deceased son, Ivan, gives the piece emotional heft and lifts it above the standard fayre. Samantha Cameron comes across as her own woman, and by the end it is David Cameron who is the adjunct.

Paradoxically, this is why it works as a piece of propaganda – Samantha Cameron does in fact humanise David Cameron. His bloodless and cold prime ministerial pallor is invigorated (somewhat) through his association with a strong woman. (more…)

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Tory Karl McCartney is the walking, talking embodiment of why Lincoln needs Labour

11/04/2015, 03:38:54 PM

by Jack Tunmore

The good people of Lincoln have every reason to feel proud this year. Their copy of the Magna Carta, housed in the freshly revamped castle, is drawing in speakers as illustrious as the Governor of the Bank of England to mull over its significance. They also live in a seat that has been a bellwether constituency since October 1974, is always a central election battleground and now wait to play their part in deciding who will enter Number 10 after May 7th.

Against this grand backdrop skulks the figure of Karl McCartney, the Conservative incumbent who defeated Gillian Merron in 2010 with a slender majority of 1058. McCartney has managed to mangle his public image since then in a way that takes some politicians a lifetime.

A full analysis of McCartney’s mishaps would exhaust the reader, but it is worth skimming over the highlights because his behaviour is a considerable factor on the doorstep.

In January he invited constituents to attend a seminar with representatives from the Department for Transport and Network Rail. Given that both are public bodies it raised some eyebrows that he asked each constituent to send a cheque for £15 to his home address to attend, or £5 for a summary of the meeting sent via email.

His constituents were not as unfortunate as the IPSA officials, however, who received personalised notes from the Honourable Member for Lincoln attached to his expenses claims.

One such note accused an official of “talking sh*t” while another innocent scrutiniser was called a “pedantic SOAB.” SOAB, I am reliably informed, is internet shorthand for “son of a b*tch.”

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The economic questions behind and beyond the election

10/04/2015, 04:46:25 PM

by Jonathan Todd

Ed Conway characterises this as “fast becoming the election that economics forgot”. If non-economic factors are determining votes, we might note the uptick in Ed Miliband’s ratings, showing improvement against the variable that I’ve argued Labour should focus on: leadership.

It is a big Tory theme to ask, “do you want this oddity as prime minister?” If the people say, as they seem to, “actually, he’s not that bad”, then this a Tory problem. Nonetheless, Miliband’s ratings have been poor enough for long enough that they risk the electorate buying the stories that the incumbents peddle. Even when reality is inconsistent with rhetoric.

This rhetoric has claimed that Labour caused the global financial crisis (when Mervyn King, the ex Governor of the Bank of England, says otherwise), that Labour spent too much at crucial junctures (when the Tories then backed this spending), and that Labour failed to properly regulate the banks (when the Tories wanted less regulation).

As galling as it may be, though, too much time may have passed for public opinion to substantially shift on these debates. But there remain questions about where the economy is now and where it is going.

The rhetoric was of “the march of the makers” and renewal of competitiveness. The reality is that the balance of payments and productivity are both unprecedentedly awful, evidencing a troubling lack of competitiveness, which may explain two-thirds of economists recently surveyed reporting concerns about the government’s economic management.

The political vogue of economic metrics waxes and wanes. We were more agitated by the balance of payments in the 1960s. Unemployment became a bigger issue in the 1970s. Thatcherism made the money supply “the thing” in the 1980s.

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Yes, the Tories were in the gutter yesterday. But that’s where elections are won

10/04/2015, 09:53:43 AM

by Atul Hatwal

It’s the hope that kills. That’s what large sections of the Labour party are about to find out. I certainly did in 1992. Now, as then, the Tories are accused of being in the gutter. Now, as then, several of the headline polls flatter.  And a few weeks from now, as then, Labour will be left to wonder how it all went wrong.

Yesterday, while Twitter was rapt with Ed Miliband’s rising ratings in Survation’s latest poll, a more apposite survey went without comment. The Sun’s YouGov poll, which asked who voters’ preferred as PM – Cameron or Miliband – found 40% opting for David Cameron and 24% for Ed Miliband.

Elections are a comparative choice. Only those questions which force voters to make a choice between the applicants for the job on offer, approximate the electoral decision-making process. Polls such as Survation’s, which ask questions on approval vs disapproval are better at capturing the public’s views of a leader’s performance relative to their past perceptions of that politician.

Some good days for a historically poorly rated leader could result in quite a bounce. Vice versa for a leader traditionally well regarded who stumbles.

This is what happened yesterday with Survation. On Tuesday, when the poll was conducted, Ed Miliband did well while David Cameron and the Tories looked awful defending non-doms.

But as James Kirkup astutely highlighted, while the public stand with Labour on the issue of non-doms, few votes will be switched. The perception of Labour as more committed to fairness is well established. As is the Tories’ penchant for backing the wealthy elite.

All of this has already been baked into voters’ perceptions. Which is why, when forced to choose between the two on preference for prime minister, those self-same voters, who will have seen an improved Ed Miliband over recent days, would still opt for David Cameron by double digits –  a majority that has remained stubbornly in place for years.

A few weeks from now, Thursday’s excitement will seem like yet another cruel false dawn. Rather than being viewed, in the words of an excitable Guardian splash as the “day the polls turned,” the focus will be on the Tories much derided mud-slinging strategy as a tactically telling intervention.

Michael Fallon and his Tory colleagues have been castigated for gutter politics with their emphasis on Ed Miliband’s conflict with his brother and patently ludicrous claims about Labour abandoning Trident. As news of the positive polls broke, the Labour Twittersphere was convinced that the Tory attacks were the last desperate act of a flailing campaign.

The Conservative’s onslaught was exactly the type of behaviour which alienates the public from politics. But parties, all parties, habitually engage in these types of attacks because they work.

The objectives of yesterday’s seemingly random act of political ABH were threefold.

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Labour obsesses over London while Scotland burns

09/04/2015, 07:00:28 AM

by David Talbot

Returning home over the Easter weekend, the rolling English shires are about as far removed from the London metropolis as can be imagined. In political terms, my hometown, Stratford upon Avon, is a fortress of Conservative blue. The next door constituency to the south east is the prime minister’s of Witney, but to the north lie the Labour behemoth cities of Birmingham and Coventry, ringed by marginals that defined the Labour party’s return to government in 1997.

Redditch, Warwick and Leamington Spa and Worcester symbolised Labour’s deep raid into traditionally Tory lands – with the latter even spawning the stereotypical voter that gave Labour a long look again after 18 years in the wilderness. But the difference between the attention Labour will give these seats and those in London is stark, and potentially come to symbolise its failure on election night.

A week before the Easter break an ITV poll detailed Labour’s sweeping gains in the capital, with the party nudging to nearly fifty per cent of the vote and set to take six seats off the Conservatives. London, Sadiq Khan explained, held the key to Downing Street. To reinforce the point, an Evening Standard poll the next day showed Labour holding an eleven point lead. This, in a national election that is on a knife-edge, was impressive and encouraging for Labour. As part of its general election coverage the Standard ran coverage of the closest race in London, that of Hampstead and Kilburn. But buried beneath the prose of a tight election was a key, and damning, statistic.

Two out of the four million much-fabled conversations Labour are set to have in this election are to take place in London. This is a gross distortion of manpower in already safe Labour seats and, at best, for gains that will barely scratch the surface towards a majority.

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