Time for some metrosexual politics (please)

by Stephen Tall on March 13, 2005

Who let the attack dogs out?

Peter Hain, Alan Milburn, John Reid… if they’re not hectoring away as you fall asleep to Newsnight, they’re grizzling aggressively on the Today programme the next morning. Enough already. We know there’s an election campaign just round the corner, but – actually, really, genuinely – is there any need for the overtly macho, bullying rhetoric that Labour’s ‘attack dogs’ have been hurling hither and yon?

Dr Reid’s truculent outburst against Jeremy Paxman last week (if you haven’t yet seen it, click here – well worth a watch) for deploying precisely that phrase was merely the latest bizarre citation in a litany of increasingly desperate efforts by Labour’s jittery high command to grab back the political initiative. (Even more ludicrous was the Health Secretary’s lambasting of Paxo that “if you have a PhD and a posh accent from a school like yours, you are regarded as a sophisticate”: Dr Reid has a PhD in economic history. Mr Paxman doesn’t.)

Yesterday morning, it was Peter Hain trying to defend the Government’s indefensible anti-terror bill to John Humphreys, branding Michael Howard an “attack mongrel”. I suspect a majority of the British public were in favour of Labour’s cack-handed attempts to trumpet themselves as ‘tough on terror’. But so blatant was the Party’s desire to force a bad bill through Parliament simply so they could get one over on the Tories and Lib Dems, they lost the respect of those who had been observing the whole shambolic debacle.

All this testosterone-fuelled aggression is, of course, the masterwork of Alan Milburn, Labour’s election campaign co-ordinator. He is determined to shake Labour’s ‘core’ vote out of their supposed complacency by frightening them with the prospect of a Tory election victory. I understand the rationale, however depressingly cynical it might appear.

But it relies on two flawed assumptions.

First, no-one believes the Tories will win the next election. Not even the Tories. So the strategy lacks credibility. Secondly, Labour appear to believe they need only whistle for their ‘traditional voters’ to come running. But you cannot systematically offend each and every section of the electorate, and then wonder at their inconstant support.

Now Labour has woken up to their big problem with one such vital section: women. An ICM poll in today’s News of the World makes depressing reading for Tony Blair.

  • Just 28% think him honest, half the number who believed in his integrity in 1997;
  • Only 9% want him to serve a full third term if re-elected;
  • And 69% regard him as having failed to bring peace and democracy to Iraq.

In mitigation, it should be said a slim majority still favour Mr Blair (30%) as Prime Minister than either Michael Howard (21%) or Charles Kennedy (24%). But compare this to 2001, when Mr Blair’s 43% easily trumped Mr Hague’s 16%, and dwarfed Mr Kennedy’s 12%. If you’re reading the runes, don’t bet on a Labour landslide – whatever the political commentators might have you believe.

This explains Mr Blair’s recent appearances on Woman’s Hour, Richard & Judy, and today’s ITV1 Dimbleby special, featuring an all-female studio audience. It also, I assume, explains Margaret Beckett’s sudden resurrection (I have to confess I’d forgotten her existence, assuming she had been granted extended caravanning leave). At last a woman to take the fight to the Tories!

But her fiercely strident tone is no less jarring than Messrs Hain/Milburn/Reid’s. Her keynote speech to Labour activists this week-end was heavily trailed as a ‘stinging rebuke’ to Mr Howard, whom she said would make a “disastrous” Prime Minister: “He is a bad leader, a weak leader and an opportunist.” Such pathetic vacuity: it’s enough to make a grown man cry ‘De Profundis’.

All this petulant mud-slinging, it should be added, contrasted sharply with the Tories’ deftly executed Howard ‘family reunion’ at their spring conference.

The propensity for coarse, knuckle-headed debate is not just shameless: it’s straight out of ‘Shameless’. So here’s some free advice to New Labour’s campaign team: get back in touch with your feminine side. Don’t up the ante every time a poll shows the Tory Party gaining ground in your right-wing mirror. Don’t ratchet up the lexicon venom when a television presenter gets frisky. And don’t release the attack dogs of war in the hope that SHOUTING LOUDER will ensure we all GET THE MESSAGE.

Do relax a bit, and take it easy: after all, there’s another seven weeks to polling day. Do wheel out Tessa Jowell, the one cabinet member who succeeds in sounding human and humane. And do, please, raise the level of debate in this country. Then – who knows? – we might even respect you in the morning.