As I was going to St Ives ...
I got back from a mercifully politics, internet and email free holiday in Cornwall today, booked as recuperation from the London elections before anyone knew these would be followed by a parliamentary by-election.
So I feel slightly guilty about having spent Thursday night not pounding the streets of Crewe, but looking at St Ives Bay from the balcony of the Porthminster Beach Cafe (for anyone interested in food this place deserves the ranking it got as the UK's number 1 seaside restaurant).
Not having been up there I'm reluctant to start criticising a campaign that I didn't experience first hand, based on the caricature of it presented in the media. My hunch is that the size of the Tory majority means it wouldn't have mattered what we put in our leaflets or what stunts involving people in silly costumes we did or didn't do, we still would have lost. This wasn't an election decided by the local tactics, it was decided by the national strategic picture.
I'm in favour of attack campaigning - it works and you need to give voters reasons not to vote for your opponents, as well as reasons to vote for you - but we made the mistake in Crewe of allowing a stunt attacking a person rather than their, and their party's policies, to take centre stage - the political equivalent to playing the man, not the ball. This made it look like we didn't have much to say about policy, when in fact Tamsin Dunwoody had a lot of good ideas about local regeneration. It also starts a trend we might live to regret in future - if we set the precedent that it's fair game in a by-election to savage the background of a candidate rather than their politics, pretty soon there are going to be Labour candidates on the receiving end of similar treatment, and more and more people of all parties will just not bother to come forward to run for public office. I think it's acceptable and indeed fair comment to go after the Tories in general as a party of and for the privileged, but picking on an individual Tory candidate's background was mean-spirited and a distraction from the real issues.
The real issue of course, is that despite the tax changes reversing the 10p abolition, ordinary people are being screwed economically at the moment. Anyone trying to renew a mortgage that has come to the end of its term is facing a huge hike in interest rates and the necessities of life like groceries and both domestic and car fuel are shooting up in price. In these circumstances I think we were lucky to still find 12,000 people to vote for us in Crewe.
I don't think it's all about Gordon Brown's personality, because that wouldn't explain why the same dour grumpy Scotsman was 10% ahead in the polls last September - he wasn't any more smiley then.
But I do think he needs to stop saying how good he is at steering the economic ship, and going on about trust in troubled waters etc. The trust will come back when actions we start taking actually make people's material conditions better. Until then past record is meaningless and irrelevant - people are hurting in the here and now, not judging us on how good we were until this year.
We need to stop sounding like the economy is something wholly outside the government's responsibility and that all we can do is steer our way through it. That's the kind of attitude that governments had in the pre-New Deal era. Voters think the government runs the country - globalisation or no globalisation - so either we should get on with doing it, or let someone else have a go. If the problem is international, then let's start delivering international solutions with other governments.
I give as an example of the lack of imagination being displayed about how to intervene in the economy, my (about to be former) mortgage lender, Northern Rock. The Government actually now owns it, but rather than use this control to help home-buyers they are actually instructing the company to down-size by only offering punitive interest rates, i.e. one of the levers that could be used imaginatively to help the public keep their homes and pay affordable mortgage repayments is instead being used to make the situation worse.
Some of my holiday reading was memoirs of various Tory politicians of the early '90s (OK so maybe my time on the beach wasn't wholly non-political). Folk in No10 should take a look. The Tories in 1991 were in a very similar place to us now. Just ditched a charismatic three times election winner. New PM who wasn't exactly media friendly and was already being muttered about. Nothing good to say about the economy (in fact as they had 15% interest rates and 3 million unemployed they would have given their right arm for our current scenario). Losing by-elections and local elections on huge swings. Not much to say in policy terms as they were knackered after 12 years in power (at least we haven't suggested a cones hotline like Major did).
They managed to get disciplined, get ministers focused on what policies would deliver for the key segments of the electorate that they needed to win back, and ruthlessly analysed and dissected Labour's policies, then exposed all the flaws they found to destroy our reputation as an alternative government. 1992 showed that nothing is inevitable in politics, particularly not the removal of an incumbent government. We need to start looking at some of the lessons from then, and of how sister parties in the Nordic countries have won multiple terms in government in the past (clue: it's because at every general election they offer a social policy change (such as expanding free childcare) that will improve the lives of ordinary voters that is so big and transformative in nature it defines the whole of the election debate, is impossible for conservatives to want or be able to match, and inspires our people to turn out because they know they can't afford not to) and start turning our fire on Tory policies, not their people or each other.