Why did the PM not defend Labour’s record?

If Brown continues to act like Gore, he will lose.

In a guest column for this magazine back in September 2009, Alastair Campbell wrote:

People say they don't like negative campaigning. But there are three planks to any campaign: setting out a forward agenda, defending the record, and attacking your opponents. All are essential. All have to be done with verve and vigour.

Brown has spent this campaign attacking Cameron and Clegg and, to be fair, setting out his "forward agenda" and outlining Labour's policy priorities in a fourth term -- both in the debates and in the party's manifesto.

But where was the defence of "the record"? I waited in vain during last night's final leaders' debate for Brown to come out and list some of Labour's proudest achievements in office: the minimum wage, paid holidays, international aid, lifting British children out of poverty, improving schools and hospitals, peace in Northern Ireland, etc, etc. (Check out the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance, which has been doing a quiet audit of the Labour record on a host of policy areas and has some quite positive conclusions.)

Again and again, Cameron banged on about 13 wasted years while Brown stayed silent, as if he agreed with the Tory leader about the Labour record. It's not enough, as Campbell pointed out, only to attack your opponent and make promises about the future -- you have to point out what you've done and how you've helped people.

I notice that Johann Hari, in an excellent piece in today's Independent, echoes my comparison of David "Compassionate Conservative" Cameron with George W Bush circa 1999/2000. In fact, the Bush/Gore, Cameron-Brown analogy is quite disconcerting.

Bush, the overprivileged, nice-but-dim, right-wing millionaire, ran as an outsider on the oxymoronic platform of "compassionate conservatism" against the de facto incumbent, Al Gore, who was much more qualified to be president. Gore, however, had an image problem: professorial, boring, dull, technocratic, aloof, a poor public speaker.

Gore also refused to campaign on the Democrats' eight-year record on office, distancing himself from his popular predecessor Bill Clinton, who played a small and belated role in the 2000 presidential campaign. To see Brown's predecessor and bête-noire, Tony Blair, joining the campaign today, in the final days, makes me realise just how apt the analogy is.

There is one crucial and obvious difference: Gore won more votes but lost the election to Bush. Wouldn't it be sweet if, next Thursday, Cameron wins more votes but -- because of our dysfunctional electoral system -- Brown clings on to office? Such a scenario is becoming less and less likely, but it would be a foolish man who ruled it out . . .


Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.