The public won’t forgive incompetence, Mr Cameron

31st May, 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

  • Comment Forget left or right, it’s national identity Labour just doesn’t get

    Forget left or right, it’s national identity Labour just doesn’t get

    Patriotism and the left are uneasy bedfellows. For the party of devolution, it seems odd that this should be the case. Yet, if Labour’s bungled response to the rise of UKIP and Scottish nationalism betrays anything, it’s the Westminster prejudice that questions of national identity need be placated with legislation alone. Labour’s routing in Scotland was never retribution for Gordon Brown’s brave defence of both his Scottish and British identities. But it almost certainly was a comprehensive two fingers to […]

    Read more →
  • Comment The Government isn’t taking EU refugee crisis seriously

    The Government isn’t taking EU refugee crisis seriously

    The EU has a refugee crisis that is only growing. Germany estimates it may receive 800,000 by the end of the year. Hungary had 3,000 refugees enter its border a few days ago. This is more than half the number it received for all of 2013. Syria, Afghanistan, Libya. These war-torn countries are often where these refugees have fled looking for a better life. These people may enter Europe with little money, but they are the ones with the means […]

    Read more →
  • News Britain must play its part in dealing with the refugee crisis, says Yvette Cooper

    Britain must play its part in dealing with the refugee crisis, says Yvette Cooper

    Yvette Cooper will today say that Britain must play its part in the dealing with the refugee crisis across Europe.   In a speech today the Labour leadership contender will argue for Britain to be involved in more search and rescue operations, tackling trafficking and supporting refugees. “This has become a humanitarian crisis on a scale we have not seen on our continent since the Second World War. Yet we seem paralysed to respond”, she will say. Cooper will argue that […]

    Read more →
  • News “I will win the 2020 general election”, says Burnham

    “I will win the 2020 general election”, says Burnham

    Andy Burnham has made a commitment to win the next election, in a bid to convince those wavering between voting for him and Jeremy Corbyn. The leadership contender has also this morning hit out at David Cameron over the Tories’ claims to be introducing a living wage, and said that he will fight for a “true living wage” of £11 an hour. In a piece for today’s Independent, Burnham writes that he believes the leadership contest is now a “straight choice” […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured We’re strangling our Party with structures, processes and bureaucracy

    We’re strangling our Party with structures, processes and bureaucracy

    During this leadership campaign I have been clear that the Labour Party needs to change – but that’s not just about politics or policy, it’s about how our party is organised and run too. There are many things right with our Party. At our best we are a vibrant movement full of passionate, engaged people determined to change our country for the better. Yet too often we insist on strangling our Party with structures, processes and bureaucracy. I’ve lost count of the times members have told me that their local meetings seem to care more about changing […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends










Submit