The 2010 General Election Guide
Labour: Demands of the campaign will force Brown to loosen his grip
He fought the last three elections from his bunker at party HQ. But this time, he'll be on the road – and the team effort will be critical, argues Steve Richards
Tuesday 06 April 2010
Labour's campaign will be like no other the party has fought since it started winning elections again in 1997. For a start Gordon Brown will not be a permanent, brooding presence at the party's headquarters in Westminster. During the last three elections he and his close entourage have moved in to the party's HQ and pulled the strings. In marked contrast, over the next few weeks Brown will be out on the road as the party's leader, a new role that he approaches with a predictably tortured ambivalence.
Brown does not like letting go of direct control and will try to avoid doing so. As he tours the country he will keep in touch with events at the centre with an excess of zeal. But there are limits to what a leader can do when he is away from the centre.
Tony Blair's departure as leader marks another significant change from the recent past. Labour's last three election campaigns were marked by the internal Blair/Brown divide. Even the party's open-plan office reflected this division, a panelled wall of TV screens cordoning off the area in which Brown and his team made their campaign moves from the area occupied by Blair's camp. One of the party's most experienced campaigners notes of the past three campaigns: "It's a miracle we won those elections given the degree of internal warfare and paranoia."
The arrangements are likely to be a little less complex than usual. Peter Mandelson personifies the transformed dynamics. In 1997 he was supposed to be running the campaign with Brown. The two of them did not talk to each other throughout. Now Mandelson is at the helm once more, but this time he and Brown will be communicating with each other around the clock. Mandelson's role is pivotal. He has no seat to fight and brings with him the experience of a seasoned campaigner. He will be based in London throughout, like a conductor with an orchestra at his command, no longer burdened by sniping from Brown's entourage – at least, not until things go wrong, when noisy recrimination is likely to take many forms.
Mandelson works closely with the party's formal election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, once one of Brown's closest confidants. After a tense beginning to their working relationship Mandelson and Alexander have learnt to trust and respect each other. Since the start of the year they have spoken sometimes several times a day on the phone or at the various strategic meetings that have been taking place in No 10 since last summer.
As the party's deputy leader, Harriet Harman also has a formal role in the campaign. During the afternoon of the attempted coup against Brown last January, Harman negotiated with a precarious Prime Minister a more clearly defined set of campaigning functions having felt excluded and briefed against by No 10. She will chair some of the press conferences and attend the early morning strategy meetings most days. But those working closely with Mandelson and Alexander say they are the two key figures in terms of shaping the campaign, deciding on the messages, and adapting quickly to the unpredictable twists and turns of the election battle.
Brown will also rely heavily on those he has trusted throughout his tempestuous career at the top of British politics. Indeed, for all the tensions of his inner court in recent years, the courtiers have all survived. Ed Balls will be at least as influential as Mandelson, even if he spends less time in London. His constituency of Normanton is not entirely safe and he will spend a fair amount of time campaigning there. Ed Miliband has been the manifesto co-ordinator, a role he played for the phantom election in the autumn of 2007. Others who have been there with Brown, one way or another, from the early 1990s will play a role too. One of these is his old spin doctor Charlie Whelan. Whelan has been working on a strategy to defend Labour's marginal seats against a Tory onslaught paid for partly by the cash from Lord Ashcroft. He has worked with much less cash.
The financial straitjacket applies more widely. One of Brown's confidants who has worked on every election since 1997 says: "We have got virtually no media operation." The party cannot afford one. What a contrast with 1997, when Labour was rich enough to employ an acting deputy head to its rebuttal unit. Now there is no rebuttal unit.
Some will work for nothing. Alastair Campbell returns to the fray full time during the campaign. He will be one of the key advisers who will help Brown prepare for the televised leaders' debates as well as advising on tactics and projection in the media. David Hill, who last worked for Labour as Blair's press secretary, also makes a temporary return. After all the rows and tensions of the last 15 years or so it is remarkable how many of the key people from the mid-1990s will be back to play a part in the campaign. Like the Rolling Stones, the New Labour architects keep going.
At least in theory Labour plans to put more emphasis on its team, rather than focusing almost solely on its leader. The party will highlight the disparity in experience between the two front benches, though it is aware that the most potent word in politics is "change"; it will therefore play the "experience" card carefully. Nonetheless, the plan is to give a fair amount of media exposure to those who are regarded as strong media performers.
Expect to see or hear quite a lot from the Chancellor, Alistair Darling; the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband; the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson; the Welfare Secretary, Yvette Cooper; and the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham. The two Eds, Balls and Miliband, can also be expected to feature prominently. With Brown's personal ratings low, others will step forward in an attempt to convince voters that there is more to Labour than a single leader.
But inevitably the attention is on Brown in his first campaign as leader and after a stormy phase in No 10. This will be an unavoidably presidential campaign because of the televised leadership debates and the historic events that are bound to dominate the campaign. Without much cash to spend, Labour strategists hope that the free debates will be game-changers.
Labour still plans to hold morning press conferences most days, partly in an attempt to set the agenda but also to discipline the minds of the campaign team. An early meeting to prepare a news conference is, according to one key adviser, an important focus for the rest of the day, a chance to assess the latest media coverage and the impact of the overall strategy.
The election will be a new experience for the battle-weary veterans. They set the agenda in campaigning techniques in the mid-1990s. Now it is they who have to adapt to a changing media environment. The Rolling Stones more or less managed to stay fresh. The ageing new Labour rockers will be seeking to do the same, but in a much more hostile electoral context than the one they faced for the first time in 1997.
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