Perhaps Ed Miliband is a lucky general after all. After the huge political windfall of Hackgate, the riots have fallen into his lap. While they are a disaster for the country and the communities they have afflicted, for Labour they present a huge opportunity.
Essentially, Ed and his team stand in front of three open goals. All they need to do is boot the ball, straight ahead, and they’ll have David Cameron in trouble.
The first open goal is marked “competence”. A weak initial police response and the incredible situation where May, Cameron, Clegg, Boris and Osborne were all abroad at once, Cameron stands a few screw-ups away from being the new John Major. The public secretly suspect that most politicians are useless and won’t take much persuading to put Dave in that column for his uncertain response to the riots.
The second is marked “out of touch”. Cameron and Boris — and most of the Cabinet — are millionaires. Their inexplicable failure to respond to the crises by coming home from their foreign holidays brings this line of political attack into play and can be done without the crass “they’re all rich boys” line, which smacks of class envy.Yet another PR disaster by a man whose only job outside politics was running the PR operation of a TV firm, whose name was a byword for bad programming when he was working there.
The third is labelled “police numbers”. Forcing Cameron to defend his cuts to police numbers will put him on the back foot and dismay his own supporters. Over and over again, Labour politicians must ask: why did David Cameron want to cut police numbers? Labour is fortunate that, at this moment, it has a forensic and forceful shadow home secretary in Yvette Cooper who can mix the policy work with the campaigning efforts to ensure that Labour MPs and activists can take the battle to the Tories at local level.
So far, so obvious. Yet for these attacks to hit home, Labour must forswear any mention of the cuts in any debate on the riots.
Voters look at the mobs and just know that these are not people who are gutted at the closure of the local library or youth centre. Even if the cuts were to blame — something which would be impossible to prove — Labour shouldn’t make the case for reversing them just because a few thousand unpleasant and selfish people had been emboldened by TV pictures of weak policing to go out and do some early — and free — Christmas shopping. To the ears of decent, law-abiding middle class and working class Britain, that sounds like an appeal for Danegeld: pay more tax so we can buy off the boys and girls in the masks, or JD Sports gets it (again).
For an example of how not to do it, Labour politicians should watch Harriet Harman’s disastrous encounter with Michael Gove on Newsnight last night. As an MP for a London seat which had seen some trouble, Harriet should have wiped the floor with Gove on competence, police numbers and being out of touch. Instead, while she strongly denounced the riots and looting, and said there was no excuse for the looting, she raised cuts and deficit reduction, muddying the waters — and Gove floored her. An interview that she should have walked ended with Harriet on the defensive. Fortunately this was only Newsnight, so not many people would have been watching — although the quotes will have been salted away by the Tories, you can bet on that.
Above all, it was an example of what can happen when you try to mix your messages. There will be plenty of opportunities to press the economic attack in the months ahead — along with a few opportunities to refine it. But as far as the riots are concerned, from Labour shadow ministers, MPs and councillors, we now need discipline.
David Mills was a special adviser at the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury from 2009-10 and produced the GMTV Sunday Programme for eight years.