The public won’t forgive incompetence, Mr Cameron

May 31, 2012 3:41 pm

If you follow me on Twitter (@labourpaul, if not, why not?) you’ll know there’s a by-election in the Meads ward of Eastbourne today. It’s a Tory ward, with the vacancy caused by the resignation of the councillor who wants to run as an independent for Sussex police commissioner. Labour’s candidate is Dennis Scard, who some may recall as the ex-general secretary of the Musicians’ Union.

I would like to report to LabourList readers that the proletarian masses of Meads are rising up with one voice, and that the Labour Party is going to win its first council seat for 20 years. However, I think it’s a bit too early to tell. I’ve just done three hours on the polling station, and the steady stream of retired gentlefolk don’t look very revolutionary.

However, away from the Black Cat Tearoom, and a giftshop called Emma Chisset (say it out loud a couple of times) something is definitely afoot. The public in my experience are forgiving of their governments if they think they know what they’re doing. People don’t expect their governments to do things they like, at least not all the time. They sort of expect governments to do things they don’t like, most of the time. Margaret Thatcher earned a grudging respect from swathes of the population as she belted them over the head with her handbag. The more free market mayhem she created, the better some people seemed to like it. She never lost an election.

Tony Blair, who also never lost an election, did all kinds of unpopular things. He launched a war in Iraq which divided the country, and some people are still very upset about. The double-barrelled protestor who wandered off the street and into the Leveson Inquiry, for example. He was very angry about a war that’s over and a prime minister who left office five years ago. Blair, of course, won an election for Labour after the Iraq war, with the kind of majority that Ed Milliband would give his right arm for.

What both Thatcher and Blair managed was to look like they knew what they were doing. You may not like it, but they seemed to have a clue. Thatcher was deposed when the Poll Tax suggested she had lost the plot. Brown led Labour to a defeat after a series of events which made Labour look out of control. It’s hard to remember the exact details – was it something about Ghurkhas paying ten pence tax?  The point is once a government looks incompetent, the public are monumentally unforgiving.

That’s what’s happening now. Even on the blue streets of Eastbourne, there’s a growing sense that this is not a government committed to evil right-wingery, and dastardly plots; it’s just a bit rubbish. A government that can provoke a strike of GPs for the first time since 1975 is getting it badly wrong. Who’s next? High Court Judges? The budget was the catalyst to the incompetent tag. I imagine treasury officials have been trying to bring the tax on hot pastry-based snacks into line for years. But I can’t imagine a Labour treasury minister or special adviser allowing for a minute an extra tax on the staple diet of C2 voters across the land. When they went to the Tory ministers and advisers, they didn’t even spot it. They probably think Greggs is a firm of chartered accountants. In a play straight from the pages of Frank Luntz’s Words that Work, Labour named a low-level tax reform the ‘pasty tax’, and rubbed ministers’ faces into the greasy, calorific pastry.

It’s not just the pasty tax. It’s the granny tax, the skip tax, the mess over fighter jets, secret courts, forests and the rest of the litany so helpfully compiled by Guido Fawkes and others. In politics this is called a ‘narrative’. It’s a running story, with every little cock-up blown into a major catastrophe.

It reminds me of the Back to Basics affair, when every peccadillo could be slotted into the overall narrative, or the Winter of Discontent, when a minor trade union dispute over the loo paper in the works toilet was written up as a step towards Communism. Now, if the slightest thing goes wrong with the Olympics, or with the weather, or if a minister changes his or her mind over which starter to have in Shepherds, it will be written up as a another sign of incompetence. Labour needs to capitalise on this. We need to call it something that sticks in the mind. It matters because a government which makes silly little mistakes because it is incompetent can also make huge ones which hurt people and damage their lives. Lansley’s health bill, and IDS’s welfare bill are the best examples.

Incompetence creates a bad smell. Once it hangs around a government, like the smell of one of Ken Clarke’s cigars, it become very hard to shift.

  • Sandra Elkin

    What a load of rubbish, our Candidate in Meads got almost 60% of the vote a swing to the Conservatives of 7% labour got 291 votes we gotl 1700

Latest

  • Featured Nearly one million people forced to use food banks in the last year

    Nearly one million people forced to use food banks in the last year

    David Cameron and his party may be claiming that the cost of living crisis is over – but perhaps they should speak to the nearly one million people who were forced to rely on emergency food aid from food banks in the past year. 913,138 adults and children received three days’ emergency food and support from Trussell Trust food banks in the last 12 months – that’s a rise of 163% on the number who were helped in the previous financial year. […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Going for the student vote: Postgraduates matter more

    Going for the student vote: Postgraduates matter more

    In a politics dominated by efforts to chase the grey vote it is nice to see a bit of electoral competition at the other end of the generational divide. As Labour weighs up what to do about tuition fees it might seem that a big offer to students could yield important gains next year at the general election, as well as shoring up any post-2010 support tempted to return to the Lib Dem fold. 40.5% of students voted Lib Dem […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Independence won’t deliver for Scottish women

    Independence won’t deliver for Scottish women

    As the referendum debate in Scotland picks up pace, there is an increased focus on how women will vote. So far, it would seem that women in Scotland are steadfastly resisting Salmond’s overtures. It’s no surprise, given that his central offer for more childcare has been dismissed by the experts, and women are starting to understand that the SNP are being led by polls and not principles. Women are asking why, if the SNP’s commitment to equal representation is real, […]

    Read more →
  • News Weekly survey: Cost of living, elections and devolution

    Weekly survey: Cost of living, elections and devolution

    Average wages are set to rise faster than prices – so is there still a cost of living crisis? Ed Balls says there is, the Tories are arguing that there isn’t. What do you think? And with the European and local elections coming up next month – how much campaigning is going on in your area? And when were you last out on the doorstep? Also in our survey – Ed Miliband has pledged to devolve at least £20 billion to be […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour have a mini reshuffle

    Labour have a mini reshuffle

    Labour have had a very mini pre-Easter reshuffle, with two new role announced. Thomas Docherty, formerly Angela Eagle’s PPS, has become Shadow Deputy Leader of the House, while Angela Smith moves from that position to become a Shadow Environment minister. Congratulations to both on their new roles.

    Read more →