Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 March 2007

Sometimes even Alastair Campbell gets it right. The old bruiser was up to some new tricks in the Times last week, dispensing advice to the Tories about how to win the next election.

Not that his advice was particularly useful. It amounted to little more than the assertion that David Cameron needs to do a lot more solid policy work if he is to have a hope of emulating Tony Blair’s reinvention of Labour in 1994-97. The Tories are not as far ahead in the opinion polls as they need to be to win next time, the onetime spindoctor went on, and the government under a new prime minister has every chance of winning a fourth term.

I don’t buy all of this — not least because Blair didn’t have to change much policy from Labour’s early-1980s dog-days, for the simple reason that his predecessors, Neil Kinnock and John Smith, had already done it. (Don’t forget that Gordon Brown’s declaration of the end of “tax-and-spend” and Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” soundbite both date from 1992-93, under Smith’s leadership, or that Blair’s abandonment of Clause Four, though obviously important symbolically, changed party policy not a jot.)

But Campbell is on the money when he says that the Cameron Tories are an empty vessel and that — as things stand — they are not well placed to beat a Brown government.

So far, Cameron has played his hand as well as anyone else in his party could have played it. He has done the casual nice-guy routine with some panache (certainly more than Gordon has managed so far) and there’s something about his media image that is attractive. He is saying the right things — from his party’s point of view — about how the Tories have learned from their mistakes, are no longer nasty or extreme, are concerned about poverty and all the rest. He’s bidding for the centre ground, in other words.

But he’s not doing so well as to induce panic. Open-neck-shirt visits to sink estates will not shake off the perception that he is a Etonian toff (as he is). The bike to work followed by the chauffeur was bad. The picture of him posing with the Bullingdon Club at Oxford is potentially disastrous, because it suggests that he has an inner arrogant-aristo arsehole struggling to get out. It should be used relentlessly in Labour propaganda.

And as Campbell says, there isn’t a lot of substance to Tory policy. What would a Tory government do about the big issues with which it would have to deal? All we get on the NHS, education, the environment, Europe, Britain’s relationship with the US and so on is mood music. They’re seriously embarrassed by their yet-to-be-jettisoned voter-unfriendly baggage. In Labour terms, they’re Mandelsonised Kinnock circa 1986.

As for the polls, the Tories are doing well, but not brilliantly.

On the standard “Which party would you vote for if there were a general election tomorrow?” test, the Tories are running at 37 per cent on average, with Labour on 32.5 and the Lib Dems on just under 20. It looks a commanding Tory lead, but even under the new constituency boundaries for the next general election it would be enough only to give the Tories roughly the same number of seats as Labour in a hung parliament, with a massively reduced number of Lib Dem MPs holding the balance of power. Again, it’s Kinnock circa 1986.

Which is another way of saying that opinion polls a long way from a general election don’t necessarily matter. Campbell is again right to point out that the government has had a torrid time for the past six months and that there is every reason to believe its poll fortunes are at or close to their nadir — particularly as there is a change of prime minister in the offing.

OK, so Gordon isn’t exactly inspiring, but he’s a lot better than John Major in 1990 when he replaced Margaret Thatcher — and Major’s succession gave a massive poll bounce to the Tories that carried them through to victory in 1992.

Here, the polls asking people how they would vote if Brown were PM now with Cameron as leader of the opposition need to be taken with a lorry-load of salt. Brown is not PM and has been keeping a low profile sticking to his brief while Blair takes the flak. We simply don’t know either what he’d be like in charge or how voters would respond.

There is plenty that can go wrong for Labour. The leadership and deputy leadership elections have the potential to turn into chaos — the first with no credible candidate but Brown, the second with too many candidates that have nothing to say apart from how proud they are to have served (with minor qualifications). Iraq and loans-for-peerages are not over yet. And then there’s the other stuff…

But as long as the succession is handled competently and hysteria over Iraq subsides — and as long as no one is nicked on loans-for-peerages — Brown should look a fresh enough start. And it needs just a tiny swing to Labour from the current polls for Brown to give Cameron a tonking in 2009 or 2010 and secure a clear majority for Labour. Don’t give up the fight. We’re still in the driving seat.

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