Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Local Elections

Local elections are the great safety valve of British democracy. They offer voters a cost-free way of venting their feelings and sending a message to government without risking anything more important than who does their bin collection (London obviously is the exception).

The last time Labour did this badly was in 2004 when people furious about the Iraq war vented their feelings. I was one of them and it was immensely satisfying watching the seats fall. I felt good for days afterwards and revelled in how anguished the government was about it. I imagine that the people who voted against Labour in the 2008 election are feeling the same. In fact I wouldn't be at all surprised if beer sales shot up this weekend as people celebrate showing the government who is the boss of them.

However Labour won the 2005 election, despite the 2004 local drubbing. How did that happen? Part of it was down to general elections being about long-term decisions about the future, while local elections are usually verdicts on the past year (though there are some truly local local elections). Part of it was that the 2004 vote was carthartic. After metaphorically punching the government on the nose, the anger was mostly spent and it was hard to re-stoke it.

But a big part of it was that Labour addressed the central complaint, which was Blair and Iraq. He announced in late 2004 that he was stepping down, and the polls immediately started to improve. The 2005 election was fought as "Vote Blair, get Brown" with the explicit promise that one man would step down and the other take over. And in 2007 when Blair did finally depart, there was a surge of approval for Labour. Part of that was down to people having been intensely irritated that Blair was swanning around refusing to admit he'd made a mistake, when in real life people lose their jobs for lesser misdemeanours. Natural justice demanded his head. Since Blair has gone, the program of withdrawing troops from Iraq has accelerated and the Brown government has made it clear that it won't go to war again without an iron-clad UN mandate (see Gordon Brown's speech in New York last month).

As a result Iraq wasn't mentioned at all on the doorstep this year - problem solved. Only we seem to have acquired a whole new set of problems. What were people giving us a bloody nose about this time, and what can we do to address their concerns?

In my opinion the public is very nervous about the economy (fed by a hysterical press) and for the first time they are unsure whether the Labour government can protect them from global headwinds. That was what they were protesting about - what they perceive as the government's loss of grip over the economy. Commentators point to the US government sending out tax rebates and claim that by contrast the UK government is ham-strung and is doing nothing. In reality, the basic rate of income tax got cut by 2% this April - and the key beneficiaries, people who earn between 18k and the upper earnings threshold, are the very people who have mortgages, and need the tax cut. But none of this is being communicated. Maybe if we hadn't bothered to cut the base rate and had sent out one-off tax rebates people would have been happier. It's certainly something to think about for the future as it is less expensive in the long run and people seem to notice one-off rebates more than permanent income-tax cuts.

In addition, many people seem to believe we are in recession, when instead we grew at a fair 0.4% in the first quarter, stronger than the growth going into the 2005 election and stronger than growth in the USA (which posted growth of 0.15% in the quarter, the annual equivalent of which is 0.6%). The USA itself seems to be hanging on and not contracting, and that too is a good sign for the world economy. But that is not being communicated either.

Some people are worried about house prices - but again, housing slowed sharply in the run-up to the 2005 election and people didn't really bat an eyelid. But then again the press wasn't as hysterical about it in 2005 either.

I think the main failure of the govt is in reassuing people about the economic side. We are not doing enough to challenge the rubbish written about recession and "meltdown". We should be agressively challenging the misconceptions. We should be saying up-front that we believe that the Tories are wrong about the economy and that events will prove it. And when events do prove it, we should bang on endlessly about how they got it wrong. Alistair Darling is a bit too soothing when he talks on TV and some of the people think the lack of bite means that he doesn't really believe that the economy is holding up. He needs to assert his points with more oomp, or get someone from his department to do it on his behalf.

And then there is Gordon. He's the same man he was in 2005 when people endorsed him on the "vote-Blair-get-Brown" ticket. Everyone knew he was more about substance than style, and that he liked to think about things rather than make off-the cuff decisions like Blair. But Brown is being attacked relentlessly for it and in a very personal way. However the attacks on Brown are no worse than the attacks Hillary Clinton has been taking (and she's been taking them for 16 long years). Her response is to keep smiling and to fight back, as feistily as possible, whereas our Gordon tends to look a little hurt.

Gordon is not the punch-back type (unlike Blair and Prescott), but he should work on not looking upset when someone has a pop at him. I've noticed that he's much more cheerful and relaxed when Sarah Brown is around and that the two of them together project a very good image. My solution - he needs to take Sarah with him everywhere he goes and perhaps Sarah should start raising her profile.

Finally, under Blair, whenever there was trouble, a whole phalanx of ministers was deployed to take to the airwaves - Blair himself only came out on the second wave, mainly at press conferences. Under Brown, Brown seems to be doing most of the lifting (apart from Yvette Cooper who seems to be on TV a lot). The cabinet need to start pulling their weight a bit more and all turning out to defend the govt. Labour stands or falls together.

I must say something about Ken Livingstone - the first and greatest of London mayors. London will regret his departure. It was heartening to see turnout for him in Inner London - it bodes well for the seats Labour holds there. When there is something real at stake the Labour vote does respond - and that's the silver lining.

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