We elect politicians to manage risk not cynically to avoid it
MIDDLE Englanders: what are they like? Big fans of Gordon Brown and Prudence till David Cameron makes one measly mention of a raised tax threshold. And then, they're off. Duh.
Labour minders searching for crumbs of comfort after the weekend's election debacle might be forgiven for trying to blame the fickle marginal voters of south-east England. After all it was their sudden, swarming conversion to the rejuvenated David Cameron that scuppered Gordon Brown's intention of calling a November election.
The weekend polls revealed the biggest political about-turn of recent times with the News of the World placing the Tories 6 per cent ahead - a complete reversal of their standing against Labour just one week earlier. Labour's own phone canvassing of marginal seats confirmed the scale of likely electoral upset.
So what went wrong for Labour? Brown's fateful tendency to hesitate? The bad advice of the Young Turks around him? The awkward, inaccurate and heavily spun press conference in Iraq? Or perhaps all the above plus a wilful inability to understand the shallow desires of Middle England?
Brown's predecessor and hero, the late John Smith, was once described by Peter Shore as "too Nordic to understand southern greed." It may seem to some that Brown has inherited the same fatal flaw. He's real old Labour. A genuine redistributionist in a way Tony Blair never was. Ex-Tory voters can sense this about him, and doubtless many in Labour believed it was just a matter of time before the pendulum swung. Last week, David Cameron didn't win, Gordon Brown didn't lose - Middle England simply woke up and smelt the coffee. I'm not sure this argument will wash.
From Wick to Weymouth, we elect politicians to manage risk not to avoid it. Gordon Brown has not just failed to amuse the fickle voters of Surrey. He has failed a test of political leadership his opponents David Cameron and Alex Salmond have largely passed.
To date, Labour has been content to believe Mr Cameron's success is to do with youth, novelty, good looks, and gift of the gab. In Scotland, Alex Salmond's success has been put down to gravitas, planning, longevity and that same gift of the gab. Strange that two such different men could outflank Labour through nothing more than the possession of silvery tongues. Strange and untrue.
After years of risk-free, interest-free political debate - where managing, massaging and careful control has been all that counts - the Toff and the Nationalist have broken the sound barrier. They speak off the cuff and evocatively and are not afraid to support policies that may prompt ridicule.
A week ago, Cameron's willingness to dabble with green taxes was scaring Tories now perfectly willing to overlook the "barmy" green taxes proposed by Zac Goldsmith. And Labour and Lib Dem voters seem to be giving Cameron credit for at least facing up to the challenge of climate change.
Is this entirely because of superficial presentational skills? Or is it because Brown chose to fudge and compromise, while Cameron and Salmond have appeared to face up to difficult choices?
The Tories are walking hesitantly away from Thatcher's judgemental, divisive legacy - albeit with embarrassing stumbles and occasional longing, backward glances. Labour seem to be walking towards it. And yet, for all Brown's careful cultivation of Thatcher, it takes just two Tory speeches offering tax cuts, for Middle and "Upper" England to swing Cameron's way.
Modern voters are strongly aspirational. Voters in Middle England may aspire to create wealth. Voters in Middle Scotland may aspire to achieve social fairness. But both sets of voters want the same thing. An aspirational government with motivating leadership.
To date, that profound desire has been misunderstood by Labour who think leadership has something to do with the right use of suits, jokes, smiles, whitened teeth and new haircuts. Brown aspires to many things but he isn't a natural motivator. Hilary Clinton has the same problem - over-serious until Bill "aw shucks" Clinton walks on stage beside her. Unfortunately for Labour, Brown has no Bill, and Alistair Darling is an even more wooden performer than Brown.
But since both are Scots they ought to have a bonus ball - the Scottish Labour MPs. This group - like a modern Praetorian Guard - were reportedly pleading with Brown not to call a general election even though a weekend poll showed support for Labour in Scotland was up 3 per cent on their 2005 result.
The old hands of Scottish Labour thought a UK November poll was a bad idea but no-one was listening. Not even Douglas Alexander - the recently elevated Scot who was also the architect of Labour's Scottish election defeat.
So if the McMafia running Downing Street were not listening to their experienced Scottish colleagues nor to the voices from the English marginals, who were they listening to? The answer appears to be themselves. So does the Labour leadership currently have any clear idea of the public mood? This is Labour's biggest and most immediate challenge.
Like a choreographed fireworks display, the pre-set timers in Gordon Brown's now abandoned election will still cause rockets to explode all the way through the next fortnight. The Comprehensive Spending Review and Pre Budget Report tomorrow will let us see if Brown can respond to Cameron's ideas on Inheritance Tax and Stamp Duty. Or if the heavy footed Scots in Downing Street will be too cautious to rise to the challenge.
If Brown hoped to flush out some half baked Tory policies - he has failed. And given himself just three days to decide whether to adopt, reject or ignore their bold tax plans.
As a famous Scot who knew nothing of election dates once remarked: "The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley."
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