Alastair's Blog

Return to:  Blog | Articles | Videos RSS feed

By-election coverage still showing gap between media and public mood on governing parties

Posted on 14 January 2011 | 9:01am

Ladies and gentlemen, at the risk of appearing arrogant and boastful about my own considerable skills and experience in political strategy, may I take you back to my blog of January 2, headlined Both governing parties deserve to be punished for Tory by-election pull-out.

‘I know that we are into a new and different sort of politics,’ it began ‘what with two parties forming the government and all that, but the bigger of those two parties really is taking the mick in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. Both parties deserve to be punished as a result.

It takes a fair bit for me to feel sorry for a Tory, but it is hard not to feel some sympathy with the Tory candidate, Kashif Ali, who has effectively been thrown to the scavenging Lib Dem wolves.

From David Cameron down, the message is clear – we will say we are pulling out the stops for poor old Kashif, but we’re not really, and for heaven’s sake don’t do anything that looks remotely like an organised campaign. International development minister Andrew Mitchell seems to have gone further, saying they will do all they can to help the Lib Dems.

Back in the days before Nick Clegg decided that being deputy prime minister was more important than any principle, or any promise made in opposition, Lib Dems used to love a good by-election. They lived for them. They won a fair few of them too, not least by engaging in the kind of tactics that saw Labour MP Phil Woolas stripped of the seat.

So it is all a bit pathetic to see the PM so worried about the declining status of his deputy that he has to help out the Lib Dems in case the vote undemines Deputy Clegg any further.

But in doing so, they are effectively saying to the voters in this three-way marginal that they don’t count for much. A party that sets out to lose clearly does not deserve to win; but nor does the party their shabby approach is seeking to help.

And poor old Clegg cannot see that what the Tories are really up to is being in a position to say, however badly they do next Thursday, that they didn’t expect anything better because they were trying to help the Lib Dems. And if the Lib Dems do badly, well, it just adds to the ‘poor old Nick’ feeling which, a few years down the track, is exactly what Cameron wants to be surrounding his nominal Number 2.

So what with the Tory VAT rise coming in the build up to the vote, and a good Labour candidate in Debbie Abrahams, there is every chance the Tory tactic will backfire. It certainly deserves to.’

And indeed it did. The Tories are now seeking to make out, with some justification, that many of their voters shifted to the Lib Dems, while the Lib Dems are seeking to maintain that all of their votes really were for them, as opposed to loaned tactical votes.

When they used to win them, the Lib Dems saw by-elections as the most earth-moving events anywhere on the planet that champagne-cork-popping Friday morning. Now they lose them, it is a very different story. No lasting significance, to be understood, blahdiblah.

They are also saying the vote came as difficult decisions were being made by the government. True, but missing the point. The public will always understand difficult decisions. But in the case of most of the difficult decisions being forced on people now, neither of the governing parties said they would be making them. Indeed in the case of VAT rises, they said they definitely wouldn’t be making them, in the case of tuition fees the Lib Dems said they would never vote for them, and these reversals are going to haunt them all the way to the next election, their excuse that ‘the books’ made these decisions inevitable getting thinner as time passes and Labour mounts a sustained fightback against Tory arguments which took too deep a hold while we were electing a new leader.

I don’t think Bob Diamond of Barclays Bank did the governing parties any favours either, reminding people of all the Cameron-Osborne-Clegg tough talk on bankers, which produced nothing. And the massive cuts announced yesterday by Manchester council as a result of Osborne’s overall package of cuys may also have lost the Tories and the Lib Dems a few late votes.

Of course before too long the media circus will move on and the brouhaha will calm. By-elections are never quite as seismic as the Lib Dems used to say and I like the ‘no getting carried away’ tone of Labour’s response.

But in addition to shaking up Clegg and David Cameron a bit I hope the result will shake up the media a bit too.

There is something of a parallel universe going on, with the media focusing largely on big picture, body language between Tories and Libs, all persuading themselves Ed Miliband is not cutting it, and a sense of the coalition having no option but to do all the difficult things they are doing … while in the real world you hear more and more about broken promises, rising prices, the massive impact of cuts in real communities, and the coalition not quite fitting the ‘too effective’ description Clegg has applied to it.

To hear the BBC political editor this morning talking of ‘sighs of relief’ in the HQs of both governing parties suggests to me the coalition-media honeymoon goes on. I think for many members of the public, it ended some time ago.

  • Anonymous

    y a kick in the teeth for him and more so for our David, who can make all the excuses he likes, as always. We weren’t born yesterday; the people of Oldham do not want Nick and David and their policies and nor do I and
    Labour can get back in power and Debbie’s victory is another step on the way

  • Dijon Wall

    I said long, long ago that if Labour was serious about getting back to power where it is undoubtedly most effective, it was a pre-requisite that it sought to win the media war.

    It’s quite clear that Rupert Murdoch has considerable influence over UK press and media and having Andy “I don’t know what happens in my own news room” Coulson so close to Cameron is a disaster for democracy in this country. I’m big enough to admit that my appraisal of you was wrong Alastair, that you were too woven into the black arts to truly reflect Labour core values and principles. I would give anything to see another Alastair Campbell with Ed Miliband’s team, as I understand now why the media must be micro-managed with ruthless efficiency.

    The last Tory government drove a wedge down the middle of this country, pitting North vs South, State vs Workers and even family against family. If we don’t win this media war, I dread to think what the state-wreckers are going to do to our country in 10 years or so.

  • I’m not sure it’s that big a deal. Labour kept there seat. To me, it says nothing. However—anybody else find it sick that BBC News is prioritising this by-election over 500 deaths in Brazil?

  • Chris lancashire

    What evidence do you have that the Lib Dems engaged in ” the kind of tactics that saw Labour MP Phil Woolas stripped of the seat”?

    As far as I know, no Lib Dem has ever been in front of an electoral court.

  • Robert

    Duff Cooper will be spinning in his grave at the Conservative campaign.

    His autobiography “Old Men Forget” is a cracking read – we had it on the bookshelf at home from my childhood and it’s on the desk as I type.

    The title comes from Henry V:

    Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
    But he’ll remember, with advantages,
    What feats he did that day.

    More interestingly, Cooper explains following his adoption as the Tory Candidate that he sailed to America with the Prince of Wales who was going to watch the Alglo/American polo.

    As to the campaign itself, he notes that during the day there was little to do in Oldham for the whole population was at work…and of his visits to factories his favourites were to cotton mills because, as he put it, the advantages were that “the noise was such as to preclude conversation, the temperature is warm, the smell is pleasant and the rosy faces of the girls whose complexions have benefited from the soft, damp air of Lancashire turn the drab factory precincts into a garden of flowers”.

    Ah well, Cameron and Clegg may be charmers but they’re nothing on Duff Cooper. And from his lofty position Duff Cooper would have seen the visciousness of the current government’s agenda as being plain wrong.

    Oh – by the way – the problems typing the blog replies are down to that wretced copyright bar by your website designers Provokateur – it keeps getting in the ruddy way!!!!

  • Sarah Dodds

    The Tories had it all to win in May. With the expenses, economic woes, and Gordon Brown’s image working in their favour they should have wiped the floor with Labour. A leader of the quality of Blair could have produced a landslide of the magnitude of ’97. The most significant thing was not how badly Labour lost; (although they have shown the required “humility” needed to learn from it) but how badly Cameron won.
    I’m not sure Cameron could even pull in a brothel.
    Here, in True Blue Sir Peter Tapsell country, all I am hearing is murmuring disquiet. There is no great love for Cameron here, and if not here I would think not anywhere. He inspires nobody, he fails to motivate or to lift them.

    I was quite fond of Gordon Brown, despite his media enhanced flaws because I felt he had a vision I understood. Cameron’s vision for Britain is ….well….what exactly? And in 5 years time, or hopefully sooner, the country will want something a bit better then vague.

  • ambrosian

    The most revealing thing was the quality of leaflets that the Tories, with all their resources, issued at this by-election. They looked like something shoved through your door by someone wanting to tarmac your drive.

  • Jane A

    This is great news, and I hope Debbie winning starts to send a message to this complacent Government.

    By the way, AC, All In The Mind has a place on the exalted shelves of the library of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which has got to be praise indeed…

  • Olli Issakainen

    Labour is now winning the argument on the past. Next it must win the argument about the cuts.
    The PM and chancellor have shown talent for making the deficit seem as it were all Labour´s fault. William Keegan wrote in the Observer that Cameron and Osborne have been rewriting economic history.
    But as Ed Miliband has stated, the deficit was not caused by Labour overspending but by global financial crisis that resulted in recession and collapse in tax revenues. This has been confirmed by IFS and C4.
    George Osborne now claims that huge cuts are needed to bring the deficit down. But look at Greece and Ireland. They have sought drastic deficit reduction and suffered.
    Mr Osborne claims that structural deficit was caused by excessive increases in social spending and public investment under Labour. He says that VAT rise is a structural tax change to deal with structural deficit.
    The deficit was already falling without cuts in public spending after Labour increased spending in 2009. So Mr Osborne´s main point that increased spending can only increase deficit and thus drastic spending cuts are needed is not valid.
    Before the recession public sector current spending was 38% of GDP – below eight of 11 Mrs T´s years in office. Any budget deficit is due failure to tax, not excessive spending.
    During this parliament a series of taxes will be cut benefiting rich, corporations and banks. These cuts are equal to revenue from the VAT hike.
    This policy is not being driven by deficit cutting. What we are seeing is, in fact, a daylight robbery: a huge income transfer from poor to rich.
    Voters are turning against the Tory-led government on the unfair cuts. Labour had credible Alistair Darling plan to halve the deficit without risking the recovery.
    Tax cuts and bonuses will push Britain´s squeezed middle into Labour´s camp. Labour has already a 8% lead in the polls, and Ed Miliband has managed to woo Lib Dems and C2 workers back.
    Labour is seen to be more in touch with concerns of ordinary people.
    Contrary to common belief, middle classes favour tackling excess at the top. They also defend public services.
    Ed Miliband needs to fashion a new middle ground.
    Labour now carries the blame for the failed economic thinking of the Thatcherite right. What is needed is a conservative response to the radicalism of neoliberalism.
    The centre ground has been around the neoliberal consensus. But neoliberalism has failed. New centre ground must be based on conservative social democracy.
    The Tories are not reluctant cutters. Alan Duncan has written that liquidation of the state cannot be achieved without drastic reduction in public expenditure.
    Modern Tory party is committed to smaller state. Economic crisis has given the Tories a perfect excuse.
    The Tories are not making huge cuts because of necessity, but because they want to do so.
    These unnecessary cuts must be stopped before they cause permanent damage to Britain.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t like typing in this comment box as part of my comments went missing when published 🙁

  • Jacquie R

    Alastair, ever since the appointment of Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts as Ed Miliband’s communications pair, I and no doubt others have been curious about any part you may have had in their selection or behind the scenes. To my knowledge, and understandably, you’ve remained discreetly quiet on the subject. However, the seeds of hope have been planted that Team Ed will now be more effectively out there! Jod Cruddas made the point on his (not best ever performance) on This Week last night and an interesting piece by Allegra Stratton in yesterday’s Guardian quoted an Ed Milliband nickname for the Bob and Tom B – “the Bomb”.

    As we all know, “the Bomb” will have its work cut out for it, thanks to the hostile and right wing media and Cameron’s support from Murdoch. I reluctantly understood why you and Blair had to be “friends” with Murdoch, but hope this type of pact won’t be necessary in the long term. There is cause for some hope, because more and more people are beginning to question the honesty and fairness of powerful media empires, just as they question the behaviour of fat cat bankers and tax avoiders. The mood is changing, and the internet has revolutionised the way we communicate. But we have a long, long way to go and today, if anything, Murdoch’s power has grown.

    When you were Blair’s “bomb”, I admit to being pretty cynical about your famous spin. But I see things differently now and genuinely hope Ed’s “Bomb” was put together in a similar factory.

  • Steve Brundish

    The media are still going soft on Cameron but it does not look so good for the PM when the Tories opinion poll rating collapse when real votes are counted. In this by election the Lib Dems (having campaigned for years in this area) with Tory support were never going to disintegrate. By the time of the May council elections with the coalition having been in power for a year and with the AV vote out of the way we will have a clear picture of how things are going to pan out. Personally I think Clegg is finished as serious contender for power. The real problem for Labour is how to deal with David Cameron. So far Labours attacks have been focused on the effect of the cuts and not the man who ordered them. Labour needs to highlight Cameron’s Cynical, opportunistic and sneaky approach to government. Until he is taken to task on his leadership style the media and the electorate will give him and the Tories the benefit of the doubt leaving Clegg to take the flack. Last night’s result dealt a blow to Nick Clegg but it’s now time for Labour to stop concentrating on the deputy and start dealing with the boss.

  • Chris lancashire

    I’m a bit confused here Sarah; on the one hand the Tories should have won by a landslide (actually they managed the biggest change in seats for a long time despite an electoral system stacked against them) and on the other hand, Cameron couldn’t pull in a brothel. Perhaps the latter explains the former.

    And remind me, just what was Gordon’s vision?

  • Steve E.

    Labour increased their majority by more than 3,000 and matched their national opinion poll rating, confirming that the party is ahead of the Tories. They also gained a vital campaigning tool ahead of the local elections.

    Lib Dem votes in Parliament prop up a Conservative Government, while Tory votes shore up Liberal candidates.

    Not a bad night’s work, was it?

  • Anna

    Clegg was at it again yesterday – wittering on about the ‘mess Labour left that we have to clean up.’ he never fails to get that in somewhere when he’s interviewed. Labour needs to ask whether the economic problems in the US and the Eurozone are Labour’s fault too. They should be skewering the Tories on this Goebbels-like propaganda.

    Anyone concerned about the Murdoch-Jeremy Hunt stitch up can sign a petition here: (Hope it’s OK to add the link.)

    Chris: No Lib Dem has appeared before an electoral court because no opponent has yet gone there bleating for redress. The Lib Dems are notorious for dirty election campaigns – Simon Hughes’s nasty campaign against Peter Tatchell being a case in point. Remember his slogan: ‘A pretty straight sort of guy’ ? That, at first, seemed a plain dig at Tatchell’s homosexuality. Only later did Hughes’ own confused sexuality become public knowledge. Not that I care who he goes to bed with – that’s his business. But his smear against Tatchell was as low as it gets.

  • Sarah Dodds

    A “big change in seats” does not make an election win. If everyone taking part in a race fails to finish, no-one has won. The Tories came closest, but seeing as the opposition where chopped at the knees (and I include financial spending on the campaigns in this) it was a crap result.
    Ther popularity DIPPED as people saw more of Cameron in the campaign, and never recovered.
    And Gordon’s vision was a damn site better than the Big Society pile of nothingness we have at the moment.

  • Sarah Dodds

    Ahh, Chris.
    I see we are a having a sore losers day.

  • Quinney

    Re the cuts in Manchester that you mention, the tory housing minister, Grant Shapps was interviewed on Look North West last night for a government response. His arguments were that that Manchester’s CEO earned more than the PM, Manchester employed a “Twiiter Czar” on £40k and they had over £100m in cash reserves.
    Manchester in now the premier city in the North, thanks to Manchester’s 2002 Commonwealth games success the cockneys managed to win the 2012 Olympics, Manchester has a vibrant entertainment economy where visitors from all over the North come to vist espiecailly over Christmas for the “German Market”. It has the Mardi Gras where the visitors are global, Manchester pioneered the return of trams to the UK with the Metrolink system which is again expanding. The revival of Manchester is down to the likes of Howard Bernstein the CEO of Manchester and as the tories often tell us when it suits them you have to pay the going rate.If he halved salary it woudn’t save many jobs. The Twitter story was bogus and Shapps struggled to argue the point.
    The programme then interviewed the chair of the local government association, who is a LIbDem, he stated it was perfectly normal that a city of Manchester’s size should have reserves of this size, it could be used for contingency arrangements, buildings insurance etc and the money available for Manchester to actually get their hands on quickly was probably about £5m.
    The real reason Manchester is being hit is because it’s a tory free zone. Most of the councils being hit hardest are northern Labour councils whereas the ones least affected are tory southern ones. eg Cameron’s local council is facing a 1% cut.
    Shapps denied this. The most annoying thing though was, beside’s his lies and inconsistencies was the fact that he was constantly smiling throughout the interview.
    The tories really don’t give a toss, it’s about money, privalege and class and the north will suffer again just like the 80’s.

  • Chris lancashire

    It was a swing of 97 seats – nearly as big a swing as Tony’s landslide in 1997.

    And I’m still waiting to hear Gordon’s vision.

  • Chris lancashire

    Nope, just asking Mr Campbell if he can substantiate his allegations.

    Guess I’ll wait a long time.

  • Watoop

    Agree wholeheartedly about Cameron. Was listening to his replies today in his “meet the carefully hand-picked audience” session in Newcastle and to the inevitable question about bankers’ bonuses, he responds with “of course it is right that their bonuses are too high…..” etc etc with zero subsequent action on what he will do about it. Clegg does this too, the faux-sympathetic “of course I agree with you..” but then precisely nothing about how to tackle the issue.
    Media training can only get you so far and the public are “getting it” in terms of the void beneath the fake smiles.

  • Sarah Dodds

    That will be on Cameron’s tombstone. Because he was not, is not, will not ever be that good. Blair was a class act. Cameron is not.

    And as for Gordon’s vision? Did you not hear his speech a couple of days before the election?

  • Nicky

    Fantastic result for Labour, Debbie Abrahams and all the activists who worked so hard to keep the seat Labour.

    To hear the BBC political editor this morning talking of ‘sighs of relief’ in the HQs of both governing parties suggests to me the coalition-media honeymoon goes on.

    Exactly. It’s very weird (and a bit repellent) to see the contorted mental gymnastics the coalition media fan club have to perform to spin this as anything other than a resounding thumbs down for the coaltion from the electorate. Even more bizarre is the way Clegg is now rewriting his own history and claiming that he was certain all along that the LibDems wouldn’t win the seat. A commenter in the Guardian called ‘BreadHead’ put it very well:

    So let’s just get this right:

    Clegg was so sure the LibDems wouldn’t win in this seat that (a) the LibDems fought a court case to unseat the previous Labour incumbent, forcing a by election; (b) the LibDems broke with parliamentary procedure by moving the writ for the by election and forcing it to take place in January; and (c) put out election material in the constiuency saying they wanted to win and were going to win.

    Yeah that makes perfect sense. Glad they won’t be at all disappointed with their actual vote going down and their coalition partner’s vote collapsing, when Labour got more actual votes than at the last general election, glad they went to so much trouble for no reason. Glad they believe their own strain of b******t.

    Why did Nick Clegg cross the road ? Becasue he promised before the last election that he wouldn’t.

  • Richard

    The Labour feather preening on TV and Radio last night was awe inspiring. Even diddy Hazel on the warpath. By any analysis a Labour “Hold” was an absolute certainty. Why would any voter switch their vote TO a coalition member party in the present circumstances of doom and gloom? When did a Government last pick up a seat at a by election?
    If you cannot do better than that lads you had better prey that your worst predictions come true, for if the coalition do sort this job out Labour will be toast.
    Your dynamic new leader surely led a brilliant campaign didn’t he?

  • Steve Brundish

    I agree especially at PMQs. Jokes at you opponents expense are fair enough but with David there’s always a snide comment and at the end of the session he regularly attacks Ed Milliband as a nowhere man, someone who doesn’t count. Ian King when he was the Sun’s business editor once described Mr Cameron as a “poisonous, slippery individual”. I think this character trait shines through and if Labour can get the public to agree then Cameron’s slick delivery will start to work against him.

  • Bar Bar of Oz

    We have an AV system over here and also compulsory voting, so am not familiar with analysing first-past-the-post. But on the face of it, going by the drop in turnout, it appears that a big slice of Tory vote simply stayed home, all Labour managed to do was to turnout the 14,000 plus votes it got in May, and the disaffected Lib Dem vote also stayed home rather than vote for Labour in any significant numbers?

    I woulda thought Labour needed to increase the numerical vote it got in May to get much hearet from this result.

  • Gilliebc

    I’m glad Labour won the by-election in Old. & Sad. yesterday. But surely the Labour Party could have put up a better candidate than this bumbling inarticulate woman. Her acceptance speech made for uncomfortable TV viewing. Even making allowances for some nervousness on her part, it was very bad. Perhaps she might consider taking a course in public speaking before making her maiden speech in the House of Commons. Otherwise, I don’t think she will be even an adequate representative for her constituents.

  • Dave Simons

    I think the use of the word ‘vision’ in this context is inappropriate – it has too many poetic and spiritual connotations. Talk about Dante’s vision, or Walter Hilton’s vision, but don’t talk about Gordon’s vision. Politicians usually have policies, which are themselves never absolutes but part of ongoing debates. Anyone seriously interested in Gordon’s ‘ongoing debates’ could refer to the latter chapters of his recent book, ‘Beyond the Crash’.
    However, Chris, with no due respect, you’re not serious. You just want to rubbish anything anyone quotes Gordon as saying or doing, so why should anyone waste space answering your request?

  • Janete

    I know I’ve joined this debate a little late but I think your comment about Cameron’s style is a really good one. At PMQs he relies heavily on insults and belittling comments and no doubt has a team of people writing them for him. It’s very tempting for the opposition to join in but I think it would be a mistake. Ed has achieved considerable impact in quietly pointing out that Cameron has not answered the question again, and I think he should approach personal insults in the same way. Highlighting this reliance on name calling and cheap personal comments instead of addressing serious policy content would, I think, resonate with the public.

  • Steve Brundsih

    For Ed it’s a hard one to deal with. The public does not like name calling but Cameron went negative as soon as Ed took over with a clear strategy to demolish the new Labour leader before he became a threat. If Ed does not give a good as he gets he can look weak and can give the impression he is not up to the job. As you say we need stick to serious policy but must find away to deal the cheap personal insults.

  • Chris lancashire

    Yes, and I’m still waiting to hear what his vision was.

    Dave – it’s not hard to rubbish what Gordon did.

  • Chris lancashire

    Nope, just like Mr Campbell to substantiate his allegations – but I guess we might wait a long time for that.

    By the way, I hold no brief for the sandal wearing, muesli chomping tendency – just don’t like to see slurs like this flung around.

  • Janete

    I know what you mean about appearing weak and I’m not suggesting we should never make jokes about the opposition. But when Ed made the ‘poisonous fungus’ comment it grated on me (and I hate the Tories with a passion and Osborne more than most). Harriet’s ‘rodent’ comment backfired and what might amuse a gathering of the Labour faithful appears unstatesmanlike when heard by the general public. At the despatch box we want Ed to be seen as a serious weighty politician in contrast to the superficial, PR obsessed and at times childish Cameron.

  • Steve Brundish

    You are totally right. Jokes only work if they are funny and not just underhand comments. If Cameron is going to be taken to task it should be done by someone other than Ed and needs to be based on fact and relating directly to his leadership style. This hopefully would be picked up by the media and shape people’s views (as can be seen with the right wing likening Ed to a certain cartoon character). Unfortunately this is all part of modern political campaigning and can make all the difference in a closely fought election.

  • Chris lancashire

    If you want a good book to read do try Brown at No.10.

  • Dave Simons

    Thanks Chris – I’ll look forward to reading it, especially after lifting this quote from Joe Haines, which I think you’ll love:
    ‘For a brief moment, he bestrode the Western political and financial world like a colossus, “the acknowledged owner of the only bank rescue plan in town”, according to Seldon. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proudly said: “My friend Gordon has the right plan and we must do it in Europe.” Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, was “dazzled” by Brown’s grasp of economic matters. Even Angela Merkel, keeper of Germany’s paranoia about inflation, was forced to adopt Brown’s prescription, although reluctantly, imperfectly and too late.’