The Paul Richards column
Yesterday afternoon I bumped into the excellent John Healey, Labour’s candidate for Wentworth and housing minister, at Manchester Piccadilly station. He told me about the seats he’d been campaigning in, the issues coming up on the doorsteps, and the Labour candidates he’d been supporting. A few minutes later, when both of us were on our separate trains, Gordon Brown arrived at the centre of a media circus, fresh from his penitent visit to Mrs Duffy’s house in Rochdale. In the space of a few minutes, both Labour campaigns were on display.
The first is Labour’s ground war, with Labour candidates wearing out their shoe leather to get Labour elected. Thanks to Twitter, you can tune in and out of these myriad campaigns, and listen to the sound of hard graft. I find it wholly humbling. The efforts of parliamentary candidates such as Stephen Twigg, Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, Tristram Hunt, Emma Reynolds, John Woodcock, Michael Dugher, Gloria de Piero, Nick Bent, Liz Kendall, Rushanara Ali, Howard Dawber and council candidates such as Luke Akehurst, Jessica Asato and Alex Smith, are outstanding. If you think I am merely name-checking my mates, I am. They make me so proud to know them, and guilty I am not doing more to help. Across the country there are decent Labour people making the arguments and trying to win for Labour, from John Prescott in his minibus, to Andrew Adonis on his beloved trains, to all those activists still with us after all these years. They deserve bloody medals.
Then there’s Labour’s air war. There’ll need to be a proper post-match analysis after next week, as there is after every election campaign. Labour’s NEC will need to lead the process on behalf of us, the members. Aspects of the campaign deserve close analysis, including the tri-partite campaign management structure, the style of the leader’s tour, and the efficacy of the key messages. If we win a fourth term, we will need to analyse our success, and learn how to win a fifth. If we lose, we will need to understand why to avoid doing it again. It wouldn’t be helpful to start that now.
It is clear that the TV debates have sucked the oxygen out of the national campaign, dominating the media coverage and skewing attention away from Labour’s message and towards the manner of its delivery. For many the election has been a TV drama in three instalments, punctuated by Clegg, The King, a pig and Mrs Duffy from Rochdale. Gordon Brown has attempted to make a strength out of his absence of slick presentation skills, contrasting substance with spin. Tonight, the debate on the economy gives Brown the opportunity to pull Labour out of third place.
It is also clear that this is the first post-spin election. With everything happening in real time, there is no room for interpretation or deflection. We watched Gordon Brown go into Mrs Duffy’s house, and we watched him come out, as though we were standing in the street ourselves. We hear the words of the leaders live, and see every bead of sweat in high-definition.
In a moment of sagacity, Neil Kinnock once said that elections are not won and lost in the weeks of a campaign, but in the years beforehand. Whatever the frustrations of the unforced errors such as the Quattro poster fiasco, Elvis impersonator and bigot-gate, their impact on the result is marginal. People have been making their minds up over many years and will judge us on a range of factors. From the orderly transition to the failed coups, from the Northern Rock rescue to progress in tackling anti-social behaviour, from our treatment of the Ghurkhas to all those new Sure Starts, voters have been judging us and deciding how to vote. The heroic efforts of Labour’s poor bloody infantry is merely part of a grand battle-plan determined by the high command.
In moments of optimism, I think we can win next Thursday. In darker moments, I am reminded of Sassoon’s poem The General:
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”