If you don't remember this man's gaffe, don't worry, it's Labour's fault not yours. Photo: Getty
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It's competence, stupid: Labour should have done more with the Tories' mistakes

Elections are as much about competence as conviction - Labour should have made more hay with the Coalition's many gaffes.

We live in an era of valence rather than position politics.  Like it or not, most voters prefer good government to grand ideological visions.  This does not mean to say that there is no place for narrative or for values.  But it does mean that both have to be tempered by pragmatism, by a sense that whoever is telling us a story and/or appealing to the better angels of our nature is also capable of getting the basics right.  Governments which don’t quite live up to their ideals are, more often than not, forgiven.  Governments that cock-up big time, less so.

Mistakes, especially if they betoken a loss of control and especially if you make a series of them in short succession, can be fatal – even if you do almost everything right after that.   Labour, for instance, lost the last election not in 2010 but in the autumn of 2007.  First there was ‘the election that never was’, which was followed in quick succession by an immigration scandal, embarrassing confusion over anti-terrorism policy, criticism from defence chiefs, the loss of two discs containing the personal and financial details of millions of families, then the resignation of Labour’s General Secretary over party finances.  Add to that the banking collapse and you have something approaching a perfect storm - one that did so much damage to the reputation of Gordon Brown’s government that no amount of saving the world on his part could save him from the chop when voters headed to the polls a couple of years later.

Labour, it is sometimes suggested, is particularly vulnerable to accusations that it’s incompetent because the charge feeds into a widespread underlying suspicion that, while its heart might be in the right place, the same can’t be said for its head.  As Maurice Saatchi famously observed in the run up to the 1992 election, ‘efficient but cruel’ – the Conservative Party’s basic brand – beats ‘caring and incompetent’ every time.

But ‘particularly vulnerable’ doesn’t mean ‘uniquely vulnerable’: the Tories, too, have a history of losing elections when voters begin to question their competence.  For instance, Ted Heath’s government didn’t lose the February 1974 election because it failed to live up to his proto-Thatcherite ‘Selsdon Man’ promises; it lost because it couldn’t even keep the lights on.  Likewise, in 1997, Ken Clarke’s stellar record as Chancellor could do little or nothing to rescue the Major government, whose reputation for knowing what it was doing had long since been irretrievably trashed not just by Black Wednesday, but by chaos over pit closures, the Maastricht Treaty, sleaze and the single currency.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that Conservative governments are, if anything, even more vulnerable than their Labour equivalents to the charge that they couldn’t run the proverbial whelk-stall.  After all, as Saatchi acknowledged, ‘cruelty’, rightly or wrongly, is already priced into the Tories’ reputation.  ‘Inefficiency’ is a much more serious matter precisely because it is so counter-intuitive, removing what for many floating voters is practically the only reason for voting Conservative.

True, the Coalition got its retaliation in first on the competence front, doing a brilliant job of retrospectively fitting up Miliband and his colleagues on the deficit and the debt while they were otherwise engaged hacking polite but nevertheless distracting lumps out of each other in the Labour leadership contest.

But Labour’s own supposed shortcomings shouldn’t have been enough, over time anyway, to have obscure the Coalition’s countless cock-ups – assorted prisoner escapes, self-inflicted wounds and parliamentary shenanigans on the Health and Social Care Bill, Lords and boundary reform, and Europe, the jerry cans in the garage suggestion to beat a petrol shortage that never came, the chaos at the UKBA and Passports Agency, the selling of Royal Mail for a song, the botched/snail’s pace introduction of Personal Independence Payments and universal credit, the bizarre goings on at the ‘Big Society Network’, not to mention the biggest cock-ups of all, namely the missing by a mile of much-trumpeted targets on net migration and on deficit and debt reduction.

Did you remember – and not just vaguely – each and every one of those items on that charge sheet? If not, you’re not alone.  One of the most common criticisms of Labour between this election and the last is that it’s struggled to come up with a clear picture of what a Miliband government would do – and do differently.  While this may be true, it risks blinding us to an equally important possibility, namely that Labour hasn’t actually been that good at opposition, at least in the sense weaving the Coalition’s myriad mishaps and missed targets into a wider narrative, not (to use Saatchi’s terms) of ‘cruelty’ brought on by austerity but of ‘inefficiency’ rendered inevitable by ideological obsession and a limited grasp of the lives of ordinary people.

Quite how this happened is a something of a mystery, not least because one of Miliband’s best lines came from his 2012 Conference speech, made in the wake, note, of what Labour brilliantly framed as the ‘ominshambles Budget’.  Yes, Labour’s ‘tax cuts for millionaires’ assault on the latter proved potent.  But so, too, did its ridicule of Osborne’s all-over-the-shop attack on pasties, caravans and grannies.  ‘Have you ever seen’, Miliband asked, ‘a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?’

Had we had more of the same from Labour’s leader and his colleagues since then, political historians of the future might have pointed to 2012 as the year the Tories lost the 2015 election.  Unless we hear a lot more of it over the next five weeks, there might be no such defeat for them to explain.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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