Politics - John Kampfner tells Labour to stop the silly stunts

Labour's problem is its core support. The danger, according to the polls and the focus groups, remai

Every schoolboy or girl is told to stand up to the bully. Give in once, and they will come back for more. It is a lesson that for the best part of a decade Tony Blair and many around him seemed unable to comprehend. Is that now changing? I merely ask . . .

One of the myths of new Labour is that it was clever at managing the media. It won over those it believed mattered, through flattery and favours. As Piers Morgan's memoirs point out, there was nothing the Prime Minister would not do to ingratiate himself with red-top proprietors and editors. There was no dinner at Chequers he would not invite them to, or story that Alastair Campbell would not offer them on a silver salver. For a time it worked. The Mail's grudging support lasted about a year. The Express's enthusiastic support lasted about five. The Sun's nominal support remains, but is offset by a news agenda that is overwhelmingly hostile.

In terms of Blair's credibility and the government's ultimate purpose, the approach was self-defeating. Compromises made in the run-up to the 1997 election were understandable. There is nothing pernicious in courting editors or keeping a close eye on newspaper campaigns. But Blair's error was to turn an occasional necessary evil into a strategy. He allowed the power relationship to be inverted and became the supplicant. Meanwhile, his people berated left-liberals for daring to suggest that the glass should be more than half full, that the government could and should be more courageous in pursuing an agenda based on liberal values and social justice. He indulged journalists on the right, while urging journalists on the left to show more "responsibility" - a responsibility several refused to show when exposing the decisions that led to the folly of war in Iraq. Underlying the appeasement of the tabloids was Blair's own grim assessment of the nature of British society. There is, in his view, only so much a national leader can do to change deeply held beliefs and prejudices. To paraphrase the late former Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins, he did not think he could change the political weather. The best that could be achieved was to instill incremental reforms in the face of the prevailing view.

The psephology of the current campaign may, for the first time, work against Blair's assumptions. The apparent success of Conservative tactics in the early skirmishes has not changed the fundamental task facing Labour. Its problem is its core support. The danger, according to focus-group evidence and public opinion polls, remains a refusal to vote rather than a switch to the Tories.

The government's response to Michael Howard's guerrilla attacks has been mixed. Early on, it panicked over asylum and immigration. But it has not tried to match him in his sudden indignation towards gypsies or sudden concern about abortion. I am not one who takes the view that certain subjects are out of bounds in election campaigns, or that newspapers are wrong to campaign on certain issues. It is, however, the job of confident governments to rise above the fray. They still have ample outlets, particularly in the broadcasting media, to project reasoned arguments. It was encouraging therefore to hear Des Browne trying to do that in a Today programme debate on immigration, and Yvette Cooper adopting a similarly measured approach in a Newsnight discussion on travellers.

The confluence of issues such as asylum, immigration, terrorism and east European enlargement in the minds of the public cannot be ignored. The politics of insecurity is, as I saw from my discussions with voters in Yorkshire and the east Midlands, high on their list of concerns. And yet there is also evidence to suggest the accusation of opportunism against Howard is beginning to resonate and that voters are not seduced by promises of quick fixes.

Gordon Brown's Budget on 16 March was intended to kick-start a more uplifting Labour campaign. The botched photo-call the following day, highlighting the supposed £35bn Tory cuts, set back those efforts, but there will be ample opportunity in coming weeks to compare economic performance and policies.

The public mood does seem aggrieved. The message might be inchoate; it might often be irrational; but much of it is recoverable, as long as Blair and those running the election turn to more positive campaigning.

Strategists spurned a golden opportunity during the launch of the mini-manifesto on children on 21 March. Instead of focusing on the impressive record on alleviating child poverty, Labour devoted its energies to a silly stunt with Jamie Oliver on school meals. They would do well to heed the advice of Douglas Alexander, one of the few senior ministers to straddle the Blair-Brown divide. He has identified the task facing Labour: to shift public opinion "consciously and irrevocably towards its own vision of a good society".

www.jkampfner.net