Late last year when Republicans called Obama “weak” on national security, the President had a blunt response: “Ask Osama Bin Laden… whether I engage in appeasement.” There’s no come-back to that.
Unfortunately politics isn’t an area of subtle nuance. Of course there are minor, technical changes that make huge differences to people’s lives. But as a general rule if you want to set a narrative then it has to be painted in big, bold letters not through subtle positions.
And this is why Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday on the economy will make little difference with the public. It was a speech mostly aimed at that part of the Westminster bubble obsessed with how Labour will address the deficit in 2015.
But the left and right of the Labour party cling to the fantasy that a straightforward line on spending cuts can be conjured up. It simply can’t. Barring that, they cling to the fantasy that even if there’s no simple line, the public can be bought over if the message is hammered relentlessly.
Forget it. Alan Johnson was absolutely bang on earlier this week in the Daily Mirror when he said: ‘We need a bit less Professor Miliband and a bit more Iron Ed’.
Labour’s narratives sound like they’re prepared for a debating society. They sound like they’re prepared for Guardian readers with the assumption people will pay attention to detail or get the main jist.
They simply won’t. Tony Blair knew this: hence he deliberately made symbolic gestures like getting rid of Clause 4. Cameron learnt from him and went out to hug hoodies and ride with huskies.
Left-wingers might like to pretend they’re above this gesture politics but they’re not. They are the first to complain they don’t know what a leader stands for when he gets too nuanced. And if lefties are complaining – is anyone surprised the public are confused?
Back to yesterday’s speech. Ed Miliband’s alarm bells should have started ringing when journalists asked if he now admitted the need to make spending cuts if in power in 2015. The fact that Labour was fighting over this over a year ago should have alerted him to the fact political journalists also have short memories and only pay attention to big, bold gestures.
The Labour leader is likely to be rewarded with some headlines but they won’t be enough. Most of the public won’t pay attention to such subtle shifts and the polls will reflect that. People will continue to say they don’t know what Ed Miliband stands for.
He has two choices: either take an extreme position on the cuts (completely for them or against them) with a big gesture to go with it so people think it’s credible, or shift the debate on to safer territory: the lack of growth, inflation and unemployment.
But even taking the second route (which I favour), Ed Miliband needs some big gestures to make the point and force the public to take notice. The time for debating is over.