We are too near the General Election to excuse the lack of focus we have exhibited over the past week. This shouldn’t need saying. In the twelve months before a General Election the absolute focus has to be on winning and to get there you have to push your party’s positive messages and its attacks on its opponents, and not allow yourself to get dragged into distracting debates. Mea culpa, because a look at my Twitter feed will show I got dragged into debating some of these issues at great length this weekend. It isn’t really people’s fault, because the issues concerned are objectively important and raise great passions. Which issues am I talking about?
- Tony Blair’s essay about Iraq, calling for intervention to stop ISIS and justifying his actions in 2003. Undoubtedly an emotive issue and hugely important both in terms of the current crisis facing the region and the ongoing debate about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War.
- The infamous Sun photo. Again, hugely emotive because of the Hillsborough tragedy and particularly for the people of Merseyside, and hugely important in terms of what it says about the relationship between politicians and News International after Leveson.
- The spill over from the “Trojan Horse” issue in Birmingham into a wider debate about state funding of faith schools. Again, hugely emotive because for some people faith schools are essential to their way of life and sustainability of their community, for others they are seen as divisive. You can’t get much more important than a debate about the ethos of the schools our children are educated in.
But important as all these issues are, they are not what will determine the outcome of the General Election.
Tony Blair is not up for election this time. Labour is led by someone who symbolically moved us on from Iraq in his leadership campaign and was not personally implicated in the decision to go to war. We are not about to commit military forces to stop ISIS. The online venting against Blair is about historical anger about a decision over a decade ago – all Blair is nowadays is an ex-statesman reduced to writing essays as he is no longer in power. We have to decide if we are going to continue to define ourselves by what we think about Tony Blair, whether positive or negative. Most voters will think we are weird, and stuck in the past, if we do. A minority of voters (primarily those who went from Labour to Lib Dem in 2005) remain deeply exercised by Iraq, but for most, even those who disagreed with the war, it is now a historical issue, long overshadowed by more recent events nearer to home like the recession.
The Sun photo undoubtedly deeply offended many people, particularly because of the crass timing clash with the Hillsborough inquests. It was an unforgivable self-inflicted error. But it will largely have passed the majority of the electorate by. If you asked the average voter what the Sun means to them they won’t say “Leveson”, “Hillsborough” or “Wapping dispute”, 5.5 million of them will say “my favourite paper which I read every day” and several million more will say “I don’t read it usually but didn’t they stick a free World Cup special through my door last week”? Given that 68% of Sun readers are in the working class C2DE demographic, where we know we are losing votes to UKIP, we need to work out how we are going to speak to Sun readers if we are not going to engage with the newspaper they read, and are going to have to explain that our fight is with the Sun not with the people who read it.
The faith schools issue is not going to be an important one in the General Election unless we take leave of our senses and decide to pick a fight with the country’s religious leaders (we may discover that the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church still possess quite a political punch) and with the 25% of parents whose children attend faith schools. Given our historic dependence on the Catholic community, and more recently the Muslim community, as heavily supportive of Labour, we might be in for a nasty surprise if we listen to voices calling for the secularisation of state education.
I think what has happened is that after an immense focus on campaigning for the 22nd May elections many Labour activists have stopped, taken a deep breath, had a few beers and a barbecue to celebrate the World Cup, and decided to do what we most enjoy when not canvassing, have a good old row with each other on Twitter.
Luckily we may get away with this as everyone else in the country is thinking about the football, not politics, for the next few weeks. But we don’t have enough weeks until the General Election to waste many like this. We have to get back to the day job of a party seeking power without delay. At the top level exposing everything the Government has done wrong, setting out the way we would improve people’s everyday lives if we won, and winning back credibility as potential managers of the economy. At the grassroots level we need to be straight back out on the doorstep talking to voters about Labour’s policies (we can’t claim there aren’t any after the glut of recent announcements) and listening to (and acting on when they are local) their concerns. As we need to identify approximately 25,000 Labour supporters in every seat we hope to win, and we only have just over 323 days to do it, we need to get our proverbial skates on.
Let’s hope last week is the last wasted one.