Why the Tories should avoid echoing Gove's attacks on Miliband

Throwing rhetorical jibes at the Labour leader is a crude displacement activity that will do little to aid the Tories' cause.

Michael Gove's blitzkrieg against Ed Miliband in today's Telegraph ("a blancmange in a hurricane") is a preview of the strategy we can expect the Consevatives to adopt in 2015. Framing the election as a presidential contest, they will depict Miliband as 'weak' (and 'weird') in contrast to the 'strong' (and 'normal') Cameron. 

The Education Secretary writes:

[T]he weakness of Ed Miliband is all the starker when we consider that there is no programme of concrete policies, bound together by principles that make them intelligible and resilient, which any of us in politics can yet associate with his leadership. He is as clearly defined as a blancmange in a hurricane.

...

Miliband, incapable of choosing when he should be eager to lead, inconstant and vacillating when he should be backing the idealists, seeking refuge in a world where Willy Wonka and Montgomery Burns seem relevant because he cannot bear too much reality.

But while Gove and others (most notably George Osborne and Lynton Crosby) believe that attack is the best form of defence, there are good reasons why the Tories should avoid such an onslaught. As Lord Ashcroft, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, noted last year, "Voters think parties go on the attack when they have nothing to say for themselves." In 2010, when the Tories should have focused relentlessly on reassuring centrist voters that they could be trusted to run the economy and protect public services, they ran a crude series of anti-Brown posters emblazoned with slogans such as "I let 80,000 criminals out early - vote for me". Predictably, they fell short. 

The Conservatives should also avoid the error of assuming that an anti-Miliband jihad will draw the voters they need away from Labour. In many cases, they support the party in spite of Miliband, not because of him, so reminding them of this fact is unlikely to help. Far better for the Tories to focus on persuading current Labour supporters that they can govern in the interests of all voters, rather than a rich few (the biggest obstacle, as Ashcroft continually points out, to a Conservative victory).

As I noted yesterday, it is idle and complacent of the Tories to assume that Cameron's superior personal ratings will be their salvation. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but that didn't stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51 per cent approval rating compared to one of 28 per cent for Heath) didn't stop Labour going down to a decisive defeat. 

It's too early to say which precedent 2015 will follow, but the key point is this: there is no reason to assume that Miliband's ratings (should they fail to improve) will cost Labour victory. In the meantime, the Tories would be wise to focus on the many obstacles to a Conservative win: the surge in support for UKIP (which will almost certainly improve on its 2010 share of 3 per cent), the defection of Lib Dem supporters to Labour in Tory-Labour marginals (the seats that will determine the outcome of the election) and the continuing lack of growth. Confronted by all of this, strident attacks on Miliband are a fairly obvious displacement activity. Gove can certainly turn a phrase, but his verbal volleys won't turn the election. 

Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What David Hockney has to tell us about football

Why the sudden glut of blond footballers? A conversation I had with the artist back in 1966 gave me a clue. . .

In 1966, I went to interview David Hockney at a rather run-down flat in Bayswater, central London. He was 28 and had just won a gold medal at the Royal College of Art.

In his lavatory, I noticed a cut-out photograph from a newspaper of Denis Law scoring a goal. I asked if he was a football fan. He said no, he just liked Denis Law’s thighs.

The sub-editors cut that remark out of the story, to save any gossip or legal problems. In 1966 homosexual activity could still be an offence.

Hockney and a friend had recently been in the United States and had been watching an advert on TV that said “Blondes have more fun”. At two o’clock in the morning, slightly drunk, they both went out, bought some hair dye and became blond. Hockney decided to remain blond from then on, though he has naturally dark hair.

Is it true that blonds have more fun? Lionel Messi presumably thinks so, otherwise why has he greeted this brand-new season with that weird blond hair? We look at his face, his figure, his posture and we know it’s him – then we blink, thinking what the heck, does he realise some joker has been pouring stuff on his head?

He has always been such a staid, old-fashioned-looking lad, never messing around with his hair till now. Neymar, beside him, has gone even blonder, but somehow we expect it of him. He had foony hair even before he left Brazil.

Over here, blonds are popping up all over the shop. Most teams now have a born-again blondie. It must take a fortune for Marouane Fellaini of Man United to brighten up his hair, as he has so much. But it’s already fading. Cheapskate.

Mesut Özil of Arsenal held back, not going the full head, just bits of it, which I suspect is a clue to his wavering, hesitant personality. His colleague Aaron Ramsey has almost the full blond monty. Paul Pogba of Man United has a sort of blond streak, more like a marker pen than a makeover. His colleague Phil Jones has appeared blond, but he seems to have disappeared from the team sheet. Samir Nasri of Man City went startlingly blond, but is on loan to Seville, so we’re not able to enjoy his locks. And Didier Ndong of Sunderland is a striking blond, thanks to gallons of bleach.

Remember the Romanians in the 1998 World Cup? They suddenly appeared blond, every one of them. God, that was brilliant. One of my all-time best World Cup moments, and I was at Wembley in 1966.

So, why do they do it? Well, Hockney was right, in a sense. Not to have more fun – meaning more sex – because top footballers are more than well supplied, but because their normal working lives are on the whole devoid of fun.

They can’t stuff their faces with fast food, drink themselves stupid, stay up all night, take a few silly pills – which is what many of our healthy 25-year-old lads consider a reasonably fun evening. Nor can they spend all their millions on fun hols, such as skiing in the winter, a safari in the spring, or hang-gliding at the weekend. Prem players have to be so boringly sensible these days, or their foreign managers will be screaming at them in their funny foreign accents.

While not on the pitch, or training, which takes up only a few hours a day, the boredom is appalling, endlessly on planes or coaches or in some hotel that could be anywhere.

The only bright spot in the long days is to look in the mirror and think: “Hmm, I wonder what highlights would look like? I’ve done the beard and the tattoos. Now let’s go for blond. Wow, gorgeous.”

They influence each other, being simple souls, so when one dyes his hair, depending on where he is in the macho pecking order, others follow. They put in the day by looking at themselves. Harmless fun. Bless ’em.

But I expect all the faux blonds to have gone by Christmas. Along with Mourinho. I said that to myself the moment he arrived in Manchester, smirking away. Pep will see him off. OK then, let’s say Easter at the latest . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times