The twelve rules of opposition:day eight

by Atul Hatwal

Rule Eight: Play the man not the ball

The man in question is the prime minister.

As 2012 dawns, for Labour to be a successful opposition, the party will need to change its approach to David Cameron.

Elections revolve around two issues:- the economy and leadership. A central battle in every campaign is the contest between the parties to define each other, in the eyes of the voters, on these twin topics.

Currently, the Tories have a clear story that addresses both economy and leadership. In their narrative Labour are a party addicted to spending, oblivious of debt and led by an ingénue called red Ed who is in the pocket of the public sector unions.

Labour’s response is that the Tories are dragging the country back into recession, condemning a generation of the young to long term unemployment because they are cutting too far and too fast.

Spot the missing link?

Beyond the question marks on Labour’s economic critique (see rules 1, 2 and 3), half of the party’s argument is missing.

The public are hearing nothing from Labour on Cameron’s leadership.

Rule 8 involves plugging this gap and imposing a narrative that helps erode the prime minister’s authority.

It’s not that the party hasn’t been trying. Lines of attack have been regularly rolled out, only to be abandoned and contradicted within weeks.

Back in June, Ed Miliband was writing in the Sun about how David Cameron was soft on crime for cutting the numbers of police officers on the street. Cameron was weak.

Then in August there was Shaun Woodward’s memo where Cameron was going to be branded as a “recognisably right-wing leader”. Now he was the new Thatcher.

And then in the run up to the European treaty summit in December, Cameron was attacked for being a prisoner of his europhobic backbenchers. Weak again.

Until he vetoed the treaty, at which point he was even more extreme than Thatcher.

Most recently David Cameron has been “out of touch”. Though given the Tories’ commanding poll leads on the economic competence and leadership, it’s not clear what he’s out of touch with.

Nineteen months on from the general election, the Labour party still does not have a clear story to tell about David Cameron. It’s hard enough for an opposition to make its case at the best of times, let alone when it doesn’t even know what it’s own message is.

Without consistency, Labour will not cut through the political white noise to reach the public and the party might as well be reciting multiplication tables as attacking David Cameron.

In truth, there is actually only one narrative to use on the prime minister – weakness. The experience of the past is clear on the fate of oppositions that do not adopt this attack.

In the 1980s, under both Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, Labour’s attack on Margaret Thatcher was that she was heartless and too right-wing. Points that many of the people who voted Tory probably agreed with. They didn’t necessarily like her, but that’s not what leadership is about.

Labour’s critique of Mrs.Thatcher did nothing to dent her most powerful attribute as a leader – her strength of character. If anything, Labour’s approach helped bolster perceptions of her determined single-mindedness.

It’s very rare a prime minister is voted out of office for being seen as too strong.

It was a similar story with Tony Blair.

In 2001, Hague tried to establish a narrative of Blair’s dishonesty across a number of policy areas. But the Tories lacked any major U-turns to point to, and their attack did nothing to address voters’ perception of Blair as a strong leader.

In 2005, Michael Howard went down the same track, even more robustly, following the fall-out from the Iraq war. The Tories went so far as to run a poster campaign calling Blair a liar.  But again, little was done to directly address his branding as a forceful leader.

The pattern that emerges time and time again is that in every losing position for an opposition, the prime minister is allowed to define themselves as the alpha leader.

In contrast, on every occasion since the fall of the post-war Labour government, defeat for a government has been synonymous with the Prime Minister being framed as weak. Edward Heath. John Major. Gordon Brown. For all their decency, their tenures in office will never be remembered as case studies in leadership.

The lesson for Labour at the start of 2012 is self-evident.  The schizophrenia on how to attack David Cameron must end. The narrative for Cameron needs to be of a weak leader, bluffing his way through office, buffeted by events.

It almost does not matter if there are instances which contradict this approach or whether there are situations where another attack would be more relevant. Repetition of the message is the priority.

Clearly, just saying he’s weak won’t make it so. Rule 8 needs to be implemented along side the other rules to pressure the government and maximise the potential for splits between the government front and backbenches (see rule 7).

When combined with other actions in this way, it will give absolute consistency and clarity to an opposition narrative that provides a ready made explanation for any mis-step or problem that the government encounters.

This message will help translate any problem into a personal issue of leadership and lay it at the door of number ten. Regardless of policy, it will all be the prime minister’s fault.

Play the man not the ball.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Tomorrow: Rule 9 – Your strength is your weakness

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11 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition:day eight”

  1. Nick says:

    By stating play the man, it shows that you are devoid of ideas. If you haven’t a clue, you won’t be elected.

  2. John P Reid says:

    VERY GOOD POST, SLIGHTLY OFF TOPIC, Ed has been adivsed to distance himself from unions, Not through, going for mass membership ,but it’ll appeal to the daily Mail, Now William Hague started his leadership with going to the nottinghill carnival and going to the Mobo awards, but within two years have reverted to type, Same as IDS, but of course he was outsed before his criticisms of Hague allowing the Monday club and it’s like to stay in the Tory party,Yet howard came back in within 2 years of IDS victory with his “it’s not racist to call asylum seekers bogus, adverts” What ever direction Ed Miliband takes be it swing labour to the Left ,or quite rightly say The era Of Nu Labour is over, Ed firstly trying to swing laobur to the left then trying to appeal to the daily mail after all, will only present his as A flip flopper,

  3. AmberStar says:

    Thanks for showing mercy & skipping over day 7. The entire 12 would’ve been too much for us all. 🙂

  4. AmberStar says:

    maximise the potential for splits between the government front and backbenches (see rule 7).
    I tried to… but I couldn’t find the rule 7 article!

  5. figurewizard says:

    Perhaps Labour should consider that since the last election more people have woken up to the fact that the country really is broke and why. Liam Byrnes’ now infamous parting shot just about sums this up. Developments in the EU have also served to make people think. As has been made clear by all commentators it has been Eurozone governments spending money that their financial situation could not justify that has brought about the Euro crisis. That has rung a preety loud bell in this country. Even the great pretender Sarkozy made this clear to the French in an interview only yesterday, when he spoke of the need to slash public spending.

    Attacking the government here for failing to borrow yet more money for any reason is not going down well therefore and it will be many years, if ever that such an argument will have any chance of succeeding. People are beginning to ask themselves why it is not possible to get more for less – If the private sector can do it why not the public sector? It is not an unreasonable question and so far Labour is not providing any answers.

  6. Southern Shandy Drinker says:

    Really thought provoking series. Where’s day 7?

  7. Jonni says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the principle that Cameron must be the focus for attack, but surely continued reference to his millionaire, ‘upper middle class’ background and shameless defence of the city and big business is where the meat of the attack should be. Playing on the sense of gross injustice that many people feel and personifying Cameron, Osborne et al as the representatives of the greed culture, which we are all recognising for what it is.

  8. Madasafish says:

    Rule Eight: Play the man not the ball

    And to continue the analogy, what happens when the other team does the same?

    Answer: you are stuffed.

    Anyone comparing Miliband to Cameron can only come up with one conclusion. So if Cameron is a damp squib, Miliband is just damp.

  9. AmberStar says:

    I don’t think we’ll take down Cameron with strong/ weak. I think it is going to have to be about judgement or rather lack thereof.

    Let’s see if Coulson is convicted of anything; let’s see if something serious comes from the spat with France over the so-called ‘veto’; let’s see if the Lords change the NHS bill or, if not, does the entire thing end in tears; & most of all, let’s see what happens on the economy because Cameron’s New Year speech sounded like the pre-spinning of a man who knows he’s about to be over-taken by events.

  10. Madasafish says:

    I would add:
    Jonni’s “ Cameron must be the focus for attack, but surely continued reference to his millionaire, ‘upper middle class’ background” comment just shows the ignorance and lack of awareness of many Labour supporters when they make that charge..

    Ed Miliband is the son of a millionaire and he and Dave used the Inheritance Tax rules to avoid Inheritance Tax on their dead father’s fortune.

    So to rail about Cameron being rich a is like shooting your own Leader..

  11. Mike Homfray says:

    No, bad move.
    We don’t want politics dragged down to this level.

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