John Rentoul: Advice for Labour: adopt the Coke strategy

The best way to take on the Tories would be to acknowledge they have changed, but urge progressives to stay with the Real Thing
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The Independent Online

It is a whine of the times. Wherever two or three Labour people are gathered together, they are agreed that David Cameron is getting an easy ride. After they have spent the first three-quarters of the conversation discussing the Labour leadership question, that is.

It is hardly surprising that journalists, entranced by plotting, decide that Siobhain McDonagh is more of a story than a detailed costing of Conservative policy for the NHS. Ultimately, however, it is more important that the Labour Party gets its counter-attack on Cameron right than that it chooses the right person as leader – although the two are obviously connected.

There were signs last week that Gordon Brown's people realised the need to go on the offensive. Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, told Andrew Marr: "If there's one thing that I really regret in the last year, it's we've given David Cameron too easy a ride."

At least he located responsibility for this failure in the right place, rather than simply blaming journalists for being soft on the Opposition leader. Unfortunately, the onslaught on the Conservatives that followed was hopelessly misguided. James Purnell, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, led the charge, warning of "deep and painful cuts" in public spending. This was one way to interpret a newspaper interview given by George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, in which he said nothing new but which his aides admitted was a "tonal change". All he did was say again that he would not promise to match Labour spending plans beyond 2011. "Occasionally the mask slips and we see the dangerous, old-fashioned Tory right-wing instincts underneath," said Purnell, reading a No 10 script with all the conviction of a hostage.

And the Downing Street script is to revert to the default setting, which is to say that Cameron is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Has the party such a short collective memory? Did its leading members learn nothing from the failure of John Major's government to gain any traction on the shiny reasonableness of a new leader of the opposition? Its attack on Tony Blair was that he was a front man for the dangerous, old-fashioned trade union left-wing instincts underneath. It was a doomed strategy, because it ignored what most people thought of Blair. They thought he was a genuine moderate who had a firm grip on his party, which was a pretty difficult perception to shift, not least because it was true. A wilier approach was advocated unsuccessfully by Michael Heseltine. It was to welcome Blair's conversion to One Nation Toryism and ask people to stay with the Real Thing.

That "Coke" strategy is what an intellectually confident Labour Party would adopt now. It should go with the grain of public opinion and accept that David Cameron is a moderate Tory who sincerely accepts most of the New Labour settlement. But it should gently suggest that he does not really have any idea of how to achieve the "progressive" goals to which he is now supposedly committed.

There was a time, only two months ago, when James Purnell understood this. He gave a clever speech in which he said that Cameron was "blowing in the wind" of fashionable opinion. He took apart the contradictions of Tory policy on welfare and health, but said: "I'm not suggesting the Tory party is exactly the same beast it was. We will only criticise it effectively when we appreciate the ways in which it has changed, as much as the ways it hasn't." Last week, though, Purnell seemed to be saying that the Tory party is roughly the same beast it was, underneath.

In his famous "leadership bid" article at the start of the summer, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, also seemed to understand the "Coke" strategy. In all the fuss over words that were not in the article (namely "Gordon" and "Brown"), many of the important words that were in it were overlooked. Of Cameron, he said: "He may be likable and sometimes hard to disagree with, but he is empty. He is a politician of the status quo – even a status quo he consistently voted against – not change."

That was the message that should have been heard from Miliband, but it was drowned out by leadership speculation. That scared away Cabinet ministers, who noticeably failed to rally to Miliband's standard. Even last weekend, when Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite, launched a public foul-mouthed tirade against Miliband as a smug Blairite last weekend, no one in the Cabinet suggested that it was outrageous conduct for a union leader. But their cowardice also cut off an emerging debate about how best to take on the Tories.

It is not surprising that the Blairites should be disorganised and ineffective in their attempts to replace Brown. As we saw with the defenestration of Blair and the carefully distanced rubbishing of Miliband, the Brown operation is ruthless. But it is surprising that the Blairites should be so weak in advocating the right strategic position against the Tories.

Miliband has fallen silent. Purnell seems to have decided that following the No 10 line is the better part of valour. And the No 10 line is to go for the Tories as the nasty party behind the mask. Partly, this is because Brown, in his desperation to shore up his position, has played all the strongest cards in his hand.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Tories' policy making is that they seem to keep making spending promises by mistake. Six months ago, for example, Cameron suddenly promised to recruit 4,200 health visitors, so that every new parent gets the "professional support they need". Leave aside whether they all need it, how will it be paid for?

Now Labour cannot ask that question, because Brown magicked £2.7bn out of thin air to fix his own 10p tax mistake (interestingly, the main charge against him made by the Patricia Hewitt 12 this weekend). Now he has conjured up £600m for the cut in stamp duty earlier this month, along with other, less precise amounts for other probably ineffective schemes (including the tax losses from forcing energy companies to pay for insulation).

Hence the default to the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing attack. Even Blairites with nothing to lose can't seem to get it right. Stephen Byers wrote an article last week saying that "at heart Cameron is an old-style Conservative who is deeply uncomfortable with the state playing any role in our lives". If any other Labour politician writes an article or speaks about the role of the state, they will deserve to lose. Real people do not talk about the role of the state: they want the Government to sort out problems without taxing them into the ground.

Which brings us to what was so crass about the Government's response when George Osborne repeated that he would not promise to match Labour's spending plans beyond 2011. The old knee- jerk of "Tory cuts" won't work any more. Everyone knows – because the Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us – that the economic situation is grim. So the idea that the Government can continue to spend at its current rate even for the next three years has got to be in doubt.

The voters do not think that Cameron and Osborne are evil face grinders; they think a degree of caution about spending plans is sensible. As one despairing Blairite complained to me last week, the Cabinet line that Cameron is secretly hell bent on slashing the public sector for the sake of ideology is in effect telling the electorate that their perception of the Tory leader is wrong. Worse than that, he said, it is telling the voters: "You stupid, selfish fools." That may keep Brown in office, but it won't beat the Tories.