I don’t think I realised, during 1992, how much people would still be going on about 1992 20 years later. But they are. General elections that year on both sides of the Atlantic proved to be turning points in a number of ways, and continue to influence how politics is done today. In 1992 we learned that “speed kills”, and that smears can kill, too. We learned about “war rooms”, and staying “on message”. We were reminded that “it’s the economy, stupid”, while voters here were told on election day that if Neil Kinnock became prime minister the last person to leave the country should turn out the lights.
A lot of Westminster watchers have been thinking about 1992 a lot – me included (here and here). The Prime Minister admitted on his recent trip to India and Sri Lanka that he was dusting off the 1992 attack plans to aim them at Labour again. That thought hardly raises the spirits. The character assassination of Neil Kinnock was one of the grubbiest moments in post-war British politics. The assault had in fact been going on for many years in the run-up to the April ’92 election. But it is almost impossible to connect the warm, generous and charismatic Lord Kinnock we know today with the grotesque caricature of him that was disseminated back then. And that is one of the lessons of that period which has to be relearned. If you play that popular game of “what if?” for a moment, and consider how Labour might have performed under a less buttoned up and more spontaneous Neil Kinnock in 1992, I doubt the result would have been worse. (The – greatly exaggerated – “shock” of the Sheffield rally 10 days before the election was that the hitherto highly restrained Labour leader finally decided to enjoy himself in public for a bit.)
Ed Miliband has made the mature and sensible decision to be himself, as was apparent in his Desert Island Discs broadcast yesterday. As a strategy, being yourself has a lot going for it. You have a lot less to remember for a start. It also makes it harder for smears to stick if you have already revealed your true self to the country. Miliband and the leadership team seem also to have learned another lesson from 1992, about the need to combat smears energetically, if Miliband’s clear and forceful Independent on Sunday column is anything to go by.
His disdain for the Prime Minister’s tactics was apparent when he described last Monday’s proceedings in the House of Commons: “David Cameron used a parliamentary statement about human rights in Sri Lanka to talk about trade unions in Britain.” Miliband wrote of Cameron’s “new low”, and of a Tory descent into gutter politics. If, next year, voters join the dots between gutter journalism and gutter politics the consequences for Cameron and the Conservatives could be grim indeed.
But there is something much more positive and uplifting to remember from 1992 as well. I am referring, of course, to the Fleetwood Mac hit “Don’t stop”, which became the campaign song for Bill Clinton on his way to winning back the White House. It is an upbeat, optimistic number, jaunty enough to help ward off the scares stories (“Watch your wallet!”) that George H Bush and his campaign team were trying to spread about his opponent.
While I was listening to Desert Islands Discs yesterday it struck me that one of Miliband’s choices – Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” – shares many of the same qualities of the Fleetwood Mac number. Inspired by JFK’s daughter Caroline, the song is a warm, unashamed feelgood singalong anthem. “Sweet Caroline, good times never felt so good”, Diamond sings. All is warmth and compassion. It could be a sunny and powerful antidote to the darkness and cynicism of Crosbyland. (And, it might be added, not quite such a hostage to fortune as the claim that “things can only get better”).
So, who’s for a bit of Neil Diamond then as the election campaign cranks up for real? The leader has made his choice. And anything’s got to be better than A-Ha, hasn’t it?