Friday, April 10, 2015

David Cameron and the Conservatives' negative 2015 election campaign: are they losing the plot?

Two weeks ago, parliament dissolved for the election campaign, and Cameron and Miliband were preparing for their fate with Jeremy Paxman. I wrote previously about how that week was possibly a week that Cameron would have liked to forget. The PM did not exactly show himself off in his best light, and brought back the negative traits that Cameron and his supporters do their best to hide.

That was two weeks ago, and the following Thursday was dominated by the leaders' debates. Since then (and until a few days ago) the media coverage of Cameron was soft-focus, easy-on-the-eye segments of him visiting somewhere, looking kindly-but-earnest, and being photographed in kindly settings. This culminated in him being photographed with a lamb over the Easter weekend, which was perhaps the most overtly (and sickeningly) reverential photo opportunity yet.
In parallel to that, Ed Miliband and Labour were consistently shown in the mainstream media as hapless and not to be trusted. Even though this clearly flew in face of the conventional view that Miliband did - at worst - a decent job of explaining his platform in the leaders' debate, this "line" kept on being used by many in the media.

This blatant bias gave credence to the view that the media are just as much a part of the "establishment" as those in the ranks of the Conservative party.

However, the Conservatives' negative campaign looked to have stalled their fortunes by the end of the Easter holiday. It wasn't having any noticeable effect on the polls, which were showing the two main parties neck-and-neck. And then Labour turned up the heat a couple of notches.

How to lose the plot in seventy-two hours

The week began to get interesting when Tony Blair made a sudden appearance back in Sedgefield to make a speech on Europe. To an extent, this was Labour taking a risk due to the toxic effect that Blair has on some since the Iraq war. But Blair's speech displayed his statesman-like command of the English language is still a force to marvel, as well as being a devastating put-down on Cameron personally and the Conservatives in general. While Blair could be dismissed as a sign of desperation in the Miliband camp, Blair's message could not. The Conservative response was unconvincing and petty. The tone of that response would become a Conservative trend for the week.

The next day, Labour then announced that they would abolish the right of non-doms' tax privileges. As this policy was clearly a vote-winner, the Tories didn't have a coherent reply. What was even more ironic was that the Financial Times had even supported this change of the law. One of their ministers tried several different arguments against it, changing her "line" with each put-down, to ridiculous effect. The Tories were caught trying to defend the indefensible, as they tried vainly to defend the interests of their wealthy supporters. Labour had - to the Tories' evident surprise - played an absolute blinder, leaving the Conservatives flapping around for a response. It didn't come.

Things went from the sublime to the farcical the following day: Thursday. Defence secretary Michael Fallon then went on the attack about Labour's apparently "chaotic" and dangerous policy on Trident and the nuclear deterrent, going so far as to call Ed Miliband "ruthless" for robbing his brother of the leadership, suggesting that Ed would "stab" Britain in the back the same way he had done to his brother.
This line of attack was as stupid as it was embarrassing. Not only was Fallon blatantly getting his facts wrong about Labour's policy (which was essentially the same as the Conservatives), he was attacking Miliband in a way that was to quickly backfire on him.
Miliband's response to these attacks was a lesson in masterful, polite put-down. By this point in the campaign, Miliband was beginning to look more and more composed, more obviously, naturally "human", and quick to dismiss Tory personal attacks on him as "pathetic". It was clear that most people agreed with him.

To cap it all off, the Tories then decided to postpone their manifesto launch so it didn't clash with Labour's. The average person would conclude that they were scrabbling around for something - anything - to deflect the attention back on to Labour "chaos" versus Conservative "competence".

Only now, the roles had seemed reversed.

In footballing terms, gone from bad to worse for the Tories, by the end of Thurday reading:

Labour 3 - 0 Conservatives
Fallon (o.g.)

On Friday, the Tories were clearly trying to get back in the game by throwing out a few policy ideas (calling them more than "ideas" would be too kind). These included a freeze on rail fares (isn't that a Socialist idea?), and a law that gave employees the right to three days paid "voluntary leave" from their companies.
Both these ideas were quickly dismissed as gimmicks - and according to industry experts, irresponsible ones as that. The Tories had somehow turned their campaign from a well-oiled machine into a farcical joke. No-one was taking anything the Conservatives said very seriously any more.

The Blame Game

The personal attacks, as insiders know, could only have been instigated by Cameron. It was Cameron who used personal attacks in front of 10 Downing Street as his way to start the election campaign. This has been Cameron's line of attack for a very long time, making it all a question of personality. But this is also another sign of the petty baseness and superficiality of the Prime Minister's personality. While it is true that Ed Miliband has not exactly shone in personal terms since becoming Labour leader, it is now also equally clear that the poor image given to him was an unfair misrepresentation.
With the election campaign properly underway, it almost feels as though the "real" Ed (rather than "Red Ed") has suddenly been unveiled, to the Tories astonishment. A wag might suggest it was all a "cunning plan" to lull the Tories into a false sense of security, with Miliband playing a "long game" that would only become clear to everyone right at the last moment. Miliband is far from an obvious statesman, but he is also clearly a decent person who cares about people far more than those in the Conservative party.

Poor Michael Fallon was clearly told to do a job on Thursday and he did it - this was what Miliband himself cleverly alluded to. Cameron is now seen as a petty coward, who attacks his enemies but doesn't have the courage to have a one-on-one debate with a man he thinks is useless, and nor the decency to talk to the real electorate during a campaign to remain as their leader. He would rather spend a day flashing around four corners of the country (if only for a hour or two), hang out in the "Game Of Thrones" set, and then talk to a small gathering of supporters in a huge, empty shed (but pretend he's talking to a large gathering of the masses). As Miliband said, it's pathetic.

Cameron is a man who can't take criticism. He has been seen losing his temper in Westminster when rattled. This is why he lives in a cocoon-like existence, detached from the real Britain of food banks, zero-hour contracts, and thirtysomethings living with their parents because they can't afford to rent a place for themselves (let alone a mortgage). This is the consequence of his "long term economic plan".

It was Cameron who brought in Lynton Crosby as the expert to guide them to victory in 2015. So far, all his strategy has shown is that the "nasty party" are back with a vengeance. They were in hiding all along.

Fundamentally, under the stresses of an election campaign people are now seeing more of the "real" Cameron and the "real" Miliband. People will decide which person they would rather have making decisions about how society works. If it was simply about "the economy" then, yes, the Tories would probably win, but that's an overly-simplistic judgement. "The economy" is a complex idea, with lots of different factors influencing it. This explains why the Tories are not in a better position.

There is too much distrust and uncertainty about how the economy is ran in the UK. Who does it work for? This is the question that Ed Miliband poses.

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