Tories miss Andy Coulson

It is easy to hate Alistair Campbell. He was manipulative, aggressive, scheming and deceitful. But Labour needed him. With forceful figures like Mandelson, Prescott, Cook and Brown all carrying mandates, things could have been chaotic. A dip in polls would embolden them to demand quick fixes. Campbell kept Blair focused on long term strategy.  
 
There is no one as good as Campbell at that. But as polls look bad for the Tories, the value of a second class communications director is suddenly apparent.  
 
The response to a bad poll is inevitable. Councillors panic. The opposition enjoy some limelight. Backbenchers demand a harder line on this, and a change of direction on that. Cabinet members push pet projects. Leading figures assert their camp’s agenda.
 
The man the Prime Minister turns to then is his comms director. Andy Coulson’s job is to back the PM’s strategy. He would advise against idiotic quick-fixes and instead stress the long term plan, ideas that fit it.  
 
This is easy for the Tories. The long term plan is on track. They knew as cuts were announced and the economy suffered, government would become unpopular. As the cuts bite unpopularity grows. Then, as the deficit eases and the economy recovers, vindication and credit can be claimed.
 
Without Coulson the PM has been distracted from that and has made mistakes. 
 
A siren probably sounded when some one suggested the anti-multiculturalism speech. Aligning it with a widely reported English Defence League march was clear idiocy. Bloggers, the press, and the English Defence League all claimed Cameron piggybacked on their cause. It appeared incendiary, opportunistic and poorly thought out. Pretending it was a coincidence masked nothing. A Comms Director would have pulled the speech, or better still would never have planned it.  
 
Then came the bank levy debacle. A story loomed about bankers funding the Tories. Coulson would surely have suggested distraction and to let it blow over. Without him they rushed an announcement to make the banks pay more. That stocked the fires ahead of the party funding story – and ahead of a negotiated deal that let the banks off the hook.  
 
Of course anger at the banks is, by nature, targeted at the banks not the government. Multiculturalism likewise is focused on muslims not the Prime Minister. So neither will swing voting intentions much.
 
Instead, the big mistake is the Big Society, which dies this week.  
 
Leading charity figures publicly wrote it off. Eric Pickles quashed plans to make councils maintain their charity budgets. Liverpool “pulled out” of the Big Society altogether, pointing out that it was not funded anyway so quitting wouldn’t hurt residents. Polls suggest the public think it’s a cover for cuts anyway.  
 
So the strategy is simple. Shelve it! No announcement needed. Talk about services run by communities, and a greater say for local people. Just call it localism. Don’t mention the “Big Society” ever again and soon enough it will be no bigger concern than the Dome was for Blair.   

Instead Cameron re-launches it.
 
Telling people, as they grow poorer, to be less selfish and do more for others is utterly stupid. People everywhere dislike like being preached to. They hate being called selfish and lazy. They dislike it most in a country with the longest working hours and fewest public holidays in Europe. Worse than that – the implication is already viewed as being that time spent with friends, neighbours and family is self-indulgent and consumerist.  
 
So lets hope Cameron’s new spin doctor sticks around. It was one thing ten years ago to lament the Tories as weak opposition. It would be worse for them now to be a weak government for much longer.

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Scottish polling: Good for Labour. Not bad for SNP.

In 2007 the Scottish Nationalist Party swept to power in Scotland in similar fashion to the Tories in 2010. And by that I mean they just about won an election that left them without a majority despite holding most of the cards.

The SNP won with around 33 percent of the vote to Labour’s 32 percent, based on constituency votes. The list vote was little more resounding with 31 percent beating 29 percent. (Small parties tend to draw support away from big ones in the list vote).

Unlike the Tories however, the SNP treated their win like a win. They didn’t start bitching at each other about a failure to secure a majority against a Labour Party that was, unambiguously, very unpopular by historic standards. They didn’t gripe about the money their donors wasted trying to get them into power. They didn’t start making fatuous comments about their own leadership and the deals they had to do to get through the door.

So, depending on your bias and perception, the SNP acted with a confidence, audacity, ambition or ego that the Tories lacked when they formed a minority government.

It hasn’t been a resounding success.  Indeed their flagship principle of independence fell apart soon after the election. The credit crunch required London to support Scotland’s economy when RBS collapsed. Iceland, one of Salmond’s much vaunted examples of all that Scotland could be alone, went bankrupt. Ireland, the other of his much vaunted examples, has been downgraded and has had to slash services with little impact on their flailing economy.

Yet despite that, and perhaps showing how little people care about cessation, the SNP have remained stable in the polls. With a year to run before the next election they are just one percent down on both constituency and list votes.

That is according to a poll on voting intentions by TNS-BMRB.

The same poll however, says something more interesting about a defeated Labour Party.

Labour, after three years in Scottish opposition, and while hindered by unpopular Westminster leadership, recovered. A lot.

On constituency votes Labour are up on the 2007 result by 14 percent on 46 points. On the list they have risen to 42 percent, 13 points up.

The key to Labour’s success is hard to pin down. The poll might over-state support for a party whose core voter turnout is generally believed to be lower than other parties. But the Lib Dems and Tories are both down in the polls too, suggesting some success in consolidating opposition feeling.

The lessons are not clear, and Westminster has no large collection of opposition groups to take voters from. But as Labour look to recover across the UK from a terrible 2010, it will be interesting to see how the 2011 Scottish elections play out.

Could Clegg stitch up his own party?

 

Lib Dems are biting their nails. Party activists, local councillors, and millions of committed voters are all very nervous. And here is why. Their MPs are talking to the Tories and they don’t like it.

Of course talking is fine. Nick Clegg promised to talk to the biggest party and has stuck to that promise. The horror for Lib Dem supporters is this. The talks should have failed by now. There should have been too little common ground to last this long. Instead the talks might now succeed.

This is an horrific thought for most Lib Dems. They genuinely didn’t believe Mandelson’s jibe that a vote for Clegg was a vote for Cameron. I didn’t believe it either, and I’m no Lib Dem.

While the Tories have moved to the centre ground, they are still a right wing party. They want a small state, less redistribution of wealth, and withdrawal from many aspects of the EU. Some of their MPs remain homophobes, pro-life, and want to bring back hanging and flogging.

The Lib Dems on the other hand are left wing. Their leaders pretend to transcend “old style” left-right politics. But that was always a lie and the voting masses largely know it. Their success in recent elections has been about keeping the Tories out where Labour can’t, or about attracting disaffected young Labour voters who hated the Iraq war and tuition fees.

All of that means any deal to support Cameron as Prime Minister could see Clegg’s party collapse. Many members and voters would simply vote for Labour next time to get the Tories out. Others would leave for the Greens who they trust never to betray their individual principles so utterly to the right. The party might take a generation to rebuild. Worse still the damage could be irreparable and it might just die.

And then there is electoral reform.

Electoral reform is perfect self interest for Lib Dems. They want a more proportional system so they can get more MPs elected. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe that this would be fairer and so better for the country. So in return for that real change members might hold their noses and support the Tories.

But that is a fantasy option. Electoral reform is after all, also perfect self interest for Tories. They need First Past The Post to shut out small left wing parties so they can win elections. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe FPTP makes for stronger government and so is better for the country.

That means that if a deal is to be done, Clegg has to be very clever, very cynical, and very devious. In other words he needs to be an old style politician, and a very good one at that.

First things first, the issue of electoral reform needs addressing. The Tories won’t offer real change. So the demand needs to be watered down. Then the importance of it needs diminishing in the eyes of Lib Dem supporters.

Clegg has already started this process. Lib Dem MPs have stopped talking of proportional representation and instead talk of electoral reform. That is now giving way to talk of wider political change. On top of that, the Lib Dems should talk more about higher priorities like the economy and environment. The press is doing this for them, but the Lib Dems have to do it themselves and do it a lot.

All of that paves the way for telling members they should think of the worthier aim of serving the country, than specific demands like electoral reform.

Then he would need some fig leaf. This is where he should jump at the chance of a special commission or something similar. He should extend it to wider political reform too. And he should talk it up as a great move in the right direction.

Obviously such a commission is a stitch up. It is a pleasantry that will resolve nothing to the Lib Dems’ satisfaction. That is why the Tories suggested it. But that doesn’t matter. It would enable Clegg to pretend in four years time that he was tricked by the Tories. He could argue that he didn’t sell them out, he was just naïve. It would be a lie, but hey, this is old style party politics at its most traditional. And it works.

A rose by any other name?

Because too few Lib Dems would buy into such an obvious con-trick as a commission for electoral reform, a formal coalition may be off the cards. Fortunately a coalition by any other name might smell less pungent.

Clegg should rule out a formal coalition. Instead he can agree to back a Tory minority government. The policy direction of that government would probably be just as abhorrent to his members, and he’d probably get less of what he wants too. But this isn’t about good governance. This is about party politics.

Supporting a minority Tory Government would be easier to spin. Certainly the lack of real political change would be easy to explain away. After all, the Lib Dems wouldn’t be to blame. The Government (Tories) would be.

Likewise Clegg might be able to convince his supporters that he only supports Tory policies that Lib Dems like. He would claim that the Tories hold off from their worst impulses if the know they need Lib Dem support in the Commons. Again, at best that would be an exaggeration and worse a bare-faced lie. But genuine accusations of the inevitable horse-trading might even rally his supporters rather than hurt him. Attacks from outside often do that.

And that is key. Any deal with the Tories would betray his support and everyone knows it. Most of all his supporters know it. Many will leave despite any tactical effort on his part. So he needs to help them pretend this is the least bad option. And they need to remain convinced, despite all the evidence, that their vote was not the vote for Cameron that Mandelson warned it would be.

If that is too hard, perhaps he can still walk away and deal with the rest of the Left. But don’t underestimate the role time plays. The longer the talks go on, the more Lib Dems will cease to be shocked. The more they will resign themselves to what may start to feel inevitable. And as that happens their desire to think well of their party and view their own vote positively will lead them to find their own mitigations and justifications for the betrayal.