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.