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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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

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 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times