Labour isn’t too complacent – and David Cameron isn’t Keyser Söze

February 26, 2013 11:53 am

The air raid sirens can be heard once more. Time to put your tin hat on. Over the last few years the Tories, it seems, have managed to win every political debate, turn every disaster to their advantage, turn night into day and presumably water into Bollinger. We need to keep this at the forefront of our minds because the Tories have shown they can ‘bury their opposition’. Wow. Maybe we should all just give up and go home.

It’s the sort of warning that’s now a genre – complacency fiction. The story usually goes that Labour is growing too complacent. That large sections of the movement are snuggled up in onesies, drinking coco, being lulled to sleep by the soothing tones of Ed Miliband singing rockaby One Nation baby (available on ‘Now That’s What I Call Predistribution 2012’). While Labour is snoring, possibly drooling, the Tories are busy working in the shadows. Painting Labour into corners and putting it into boxes it can’t get out of. They are evil geniuses waiting to strike when the moment is right. And when they strike they will strike hard. We won’t know what hit us and neither will a country that will have to put up with a Tory government until 2020.

It’s a good story – it has a beginning, a middle and a shock ending. It’s got a villain and a moral. People like stories and this one has an edge to it. But for it to work we have to buy that the Tories are virtuoso political puppet masters. This is a bit farfetched given the barely competent manner in which they’ve taken to government. Maybe it’s part of a cunning plan? Maybe they’re acting like they don’t really know what they’re doing on purpose, to trick us. Maybe Cameron is Keyser Söze? Maybe we are misunderestimating them?

I suspect, however, that when it comes to the Tories it’s a case of what you see is what you get. They have a few good people but they’re not blessed with an abundance of talent or vision at the highest level. They’re making a mess of many aspects of government but they’ve got themselves on the right side of some key issues. The Tories aren’t the masters of getting out of political scrapes. They try really really hard to avoid them but fail miserably.

It isn’t complacency to point this out. You can do so and admit that Labour’s lead in the polls has the robustness of a poached egg. Labour has lots and lots of hard work to do, and is in a better position compared to where it was last year. The Conservatives are dangerous and are well prepared for the next election, but we can’t give them too much credit – they don’t deserve much. They didn’t win a majority and they’ve been dealing with government in a way that sometimes makes Mr. Bean seem like a trouble-shooter extraordinaire. We need to have a realistic understanding of what they are doing. They have strengths and weaknesses, as do Labour, and exaggerating them or playing them down to make a point isn’t going to help Labour develop a path to victory. We need hardnosed strategy, not fairytales.

John Clarke blogs at

  • Monkey_Bach

    Cameron is less of a Keyser Sözemore than a Verbal Kint…

    • johnmclarke

      I think that would be a good question for a film studies course.

      • Monkey_Bach

        Or a gynaecologist. Eeek.

  • postageincluded

    I sort of agree. The charge of complacency is usually code for “Where are the policies? I want to cheer, or boo, or sulk, or argue, or denounce, or plot”.

    But don’t bad mouth poached eggs – they’re food for dragons (ie Thatcher). And lay off the Mr Bean analogy too – he often manages, despite appearances, to come out smelling of nothing but roses.

    • johnmclarke

      Thanks for the comment.

      You’re right it is often used as code and can be troublesome.

      I probably should develop my knowledge of Mr Bean. While he might get some stuff right, I think it’s fair to say he gets enough wrong that you wouldn’t put him in charge of anything.

  • reformist lickspittle

    Time for the likes of Talbot to realise that the 1992 election is over two decades ago now, and they do not show the slightest signs of being able to repeat such a thing now.

  • Graeme Hancocks

    Good article.

    • johnmclarke

      Cheers Graeme.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Perhaps the reality is that both main parties have the competence of a stunned blancmange. The tories are useless in Government, but Labour also appears to be useless in Opposition (and reverse the descriptions for the previous 13 years, and reverse them again for the preceding 17 years).

    I think as a nation we deserve better than either party offers. Cameron or Miliband? It is hardly inspiring. One a cartoon “toff”, the other a man called Wallace who has lost his intelligent dog Gromit and so is lost for ideas, and both of them backed by MPs who can only act as parrots for some pre-scripted and mostly stupid “line” published to them on their iphones by a controlling media centre called Party HQ. Even the Italians seem to be getting the idea, giving a comedian a large vote in this week’s election.

    • Monkey_Bach

      I’m afraid I agree. It’s no longer a case of voting for a party with policies, led by people, which you feel are rational, competent and socially just but more a case of voting for the least worst party hoping to curb egotistical idiocy, senseless cruelty, unnecessary suffering and disaster. Although I despise many of the Shadow Cabinet even MORE than I despise many Tories, in order to be rid of shallow, superficial David Cameron and his parcel of incompetent rogues, the only thing I can do is to vote tactically and strategically to help elect a Labour government. If a more plausible, honest, and humane alternative existed I wouldn’t vote to support a party that harbours morally ambiguous people like Liam Byrne and Yvette Cooper I assure you. Eeek.

  • Amber_Star

    1. Tories: “Don’t give the keys to the guys who crashed the car.”
    Labour: “The Ferrari crashed whilst Fred was driving; Osborne promised us all a Porsche but delivered a Skoda with flat tyres instead.”

    2. Tories: “Immigration, immigration, immigration.”
    Labour: “Same old Tories; they’re still the Nasty Party.”

    3. Tories: “Ed Miliband as Prime Minister; you’re having a laugh.”
    Labour: “Osborne as Chancellor; that joke isn’t funny any more.”

  • David Talbot

    Hi John,

    Thanks, I think, for referencing my article. I don’t think any of the examples I gave are “fairy tales” – but tangible evidence of where, on the face of it, the Conservatives should have been down and out. For instance, who can remember the calls for Cameron to resign when the phone hacking details first emerged in their gruesome glory? The narrative on the economy is almost solely of Labour’s profligacy – though that may be changing with Osborne’s loss of the AAA rating.

    I’ve also mentioned before, on a website that shall not be named, that I think parts of Labour have been lulled into a false sense of security that the next election is all but won. I don’t think that is the case at all, not least because of the sheer scale of defeat we suffered in 2010. Because the end result was a hung parliament too many within the party saw it as a vindication, ie – ‘we haven’t been wiped out, so we must be alright come the next election’. That really is complacent.

    We have progressed in the past two years, for sure, but we also couldn’t have sung any lower than 29% share of the vote. My intention was to show that despite the Conservatives being against the ropes they still have a remarkable ability to get away with it. They didn’t dominate 20th century British governance for nothing, after all.

    • reformist lickspittle

      A succession of straw men, I’m afraid……

    • johnmclarke

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comment. My piece wasn’t aimed at yours in particular but I did use it as a hook because your points were well made.

      I don’t think the Tories been awarded with grudging approval. They are maintaining a level of support below where they were at the 2010 election. Public opinion is still in favour of cuts, although more heavily in favour of reducing their extent and speed rather than what the government is doing and the Tories do seem to be retaining the support of most of the people who voted for them in 2010. I think Labour should do more to appeal to some of these voters. Also, it’s not necessarily down to the Tories that the electorate still blames Labour. I think general dislike of Gordon Brown is a major contributor.

      A number of the items your piece highlights are very much Westminster village concerns. The public lost interest in Leveson once it started to get complicated. The Tory approach to AV has to be balanced by them shooting themselves in their collective foot on boundary changes. On that they give the impression of a party that doesn’t have the will to win the next election. I think this highlights the significant differences between the current disjointed state of the Conservative Party and the election winning machines of the 20th century.

      I don’t think the awkward position the Lib Dems are in is to do with a Tory masterstroke. After all Cameron did try from some time to accommodate Clegg and his pals. It’s clear from other countries, including Ireland which I know well, that junior partners are almost always damaged by coalition.

      I haven’t heard of anyone arguing that because Labour wasn’t wiped out in 2010 we will be alright at the next election. Most arguments that have a positive outlook on the next election for Labour are usually based on the long term Labour lead in the polls and the Tory inability, or lack of will to win, in getting boundary changes to work. These are valid points. Although, as I make clear, the lead is soft.

      Rather than complacency or a false sense of security I have heard plenty of willful ignorance from some sections of the party. The argument here usually goes like this: Labour should adopt a ‘radical’ alternative because people are fed up of Neo-Liberalism and have cottoned on that the Tories are evil. Often the polling lead is given as justification. I don’t think, and I’m guessing you agree, that this approach will work.

      But I don’t think it’s reasonable to jump from this to believing that the Tories are masters of all they survey. They’re not that good. And have obvious weaknesses that need to be taken into account in strategy. Holding them up on a pedestal means that the prism through which the party views the electorate is faulty and doesn’t take into account the changing electoral situation that will be around in 2015 eg. the marginalisation of the Lib Dems.

      But you’re dead right to point out that battlefields are due to be to drawn. Given that Labour’s position hasn’t solidified on many of these issues we will have to judge them as they emerge.

  • David Talbot

    I gave examples from this Parliament, reformist lickspittle. I’m happy for you to refute them, but odd to mention 1992 – as I certainly didn’t.

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