You have to hand it to Shaun Woodward. He’s got style. No anodyne, prosaic analysis of the political scene from Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary. His “Guns of August” memo charting the shift of position of Cameron’s Tory party since the election, and published in full here for the first time, is up there with the best in narrative history:
Like First World War generals, we must avoid making all our preparations for the last battle rather than the next. Indeed, the very terrain on which we will fight is changing.
In fact a cynic could argue it is too well written; that it was always meant to find a wider audience. The opening assessment of Cameron’s “sharp shift to the right” is a little too contrived, reading like the first line of a press release. I’ve written memos that were produced specifically so they could be leaked. They looked quite a lot like this.
Take this statement:
They [the Conservatives] do not appear to be seeking long-term solutions to Britain’s real challenges and problems and Cameron himself now appears to be a recognisably right wing Prime Minister.
That’s good old fashioned propaganda, not evaluation.
Then there is the identity of the author himself. When he was working out of Conservative Central Office Shaun Woodward was no shrinking violet. It was his “Labour’s Tax Bombshell” messaging that successfully blew apart Neil Kinnock’s 1992 general election campaign. Following his defection he was closely identified with the Blairite wing of the Labour party. His warning of the dangers of a centre-right shift seems strangely out of character.
Some people I’ve spoken to have said they believe the tone of the memo is merely indicative of a politician attempting to align himself with the instincts of his party leader. And it’s true that Ed Miliband has strengthened his hand by abolishing the shadow cabinet elections.
But it’s hard to imagine that at this stage of his career Woodward sees a major role for himself in a future Ed Miliband administration, and his profile over the past 12 months has been next to invisible.
But one thing is absolutely certain. Whatever the intention of the memo, the leak of it has caused a serious headache for Labour. Woodward’s problem is not his perfectly sensible judgment that:
The public never fully bought the new brand or accepted that the Tories had changed. This is best evidenced by Cameron’s failure, in spite of so much else going his way, to secure an overall majority.
Nor his equally sound assessment of the need for Labour to attack the Tories whenever and wherever they move off the centre-ground of politics.
What has alarmed many people inside the Labour party, and delighted so many opponents outside of it, is Woodward’s view of where the political centre ground actually is.
Woodward identifies a number of primary policy areas that he claims demonstrate the Tories have “moved rapidly rightwards”. They are: Deficit Reduction, De-Regulation, Welfare Cuts and the Immigration Cap.
Reducing the deficit. Reforming welfare. Getting tough on immigration. Are these really political stances that place David Cameron and his party outside of the political mainstream?
Even more potentially damaging, and surprisingly omitted from the Observer‘s coverage of the document, is Woodward’s assessment of the Conservative’s response to the riots: “[It] was a clumsy call for policing methods never seen before on mainland Britain (batton rounds and water cannon) and a likely softening of support for sentencing reform”. These positions were, he claims, “further evidence of right wing drift.
Right wing drift? When all the opinion polling conducted in the wake of the disturbances has shown overwhelming public support for use of precisely those policing methods, and an equally tough sentencing regime?
Ed Miliband’s team have been quick to try to contextualise the Woodward memo, without completely distancing themselves from it. They point out it was an attempt to analyse where the Conservative party is moving, rather than advocating a detailed strategy for how to counter it.
They also claim to recognise that not all of the Tories re-positioning will be counterproductive for them. “We understand that there’ll be some occasions when Cameron will move to the right and it will work for him,” said one insider.
But the reality is it has reinforced the impression of strategic confusion at the top of the Labour party, and, most damagingly, a sense that many of those around Ed Miliband still fail to grasp where the public are on touchstone issues like immigration, crime and welfare reform.
Woodward’s memo is elegantly written. But it would have been better for his leader and his party if the Guns of August had stayed silent.