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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Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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