Forget the politics of fear and loathing

Published by The Observer (12th April, 2015)

The first time I met David Cameron, then a rising star of the Conservatives, I was left with two abiding impressions. First, that he was very affable, with a self-deprecation rare among front-rank politicians and a sunny spirit even when we discussed life as parents of profoundly disabled children. And second, that he seemed at ease with modern Britain – gratifying given the hang-ups over gender, sexuality and race still haunting his party at the time.

After he became leader a decade ago, his party soared in the polls. The Tories finally seemed to shake off the bitterness and negativity that had plagued them for too long as they started to develop a bold new outlook based on optimism fused with support for society’s underdogs and devolution of power. This was knocked off course by the financial crisis, but for all the talk of austerity they still fought the last election on the “big society” and a manifesto inviting voters to join the government of their country.

Cameron deserves more credit for capturing the keys to Downing Street than he receives within his ranks. Yes, the campaign was confused, with muddled messages and divisions in party HQ even before the debates provoked a brief eruption of Cleggmania. Having become his speechwriter, I was fascinating to see carefully planned strategies disrupted by unexpected events, policies planned on the hoof and manifestos edited on deadline. But at least there was a positive sense of mission and some kind of blurred vision, even if voters concluded that they still did not trust the Tories to govern alone.

Now the pendulum has swung hard the other way. The Tories have gone to the country with a campaign that is narrow, repressed and uninspiring. It is based on two themes: only they can be trusted to run the economy and Ed Miliband cannot be trusted to run the country. These are rigidly controlled by campaign chief Lynton Crosby, a strategist whose ideas were forged in another country, Australia, and another century – and scaremongering seems to have replaced any sense of hope.

Labour’s campaign is little better, with its dreary core vote strategy, contorted policies and confused economics. In truth, election battles tend to make little difference to outcomes, impressions fixed in voters’ minds over the months and years beforehand. Yet last week the Tories underlined key problems with crazy clarity, shoring up their most corrosive imagery by supporting rich foreigners with preferential tax status, then switching subjects with a crude personal attack on the Labour leader. This overshadowed an interesting idea to give employees paid time off for volunteering and robust defence of the NHS.

The key word, they stress, is security. But it seems curious to base this election campaign on fear and loathing, especially at a time of such deep disillusion with traditional politics. Polling guru Lord Ashcroft asks if constant assaults on Miliband only shore up support on the left while reinforcing fears of the nasty party. Tory strategists respond to criticism by saying there is no place for soaring rhetoric and visionary ideals in this age of rage against the Westminster machines since voters do not believe the promises of politicians. Welcome to the politics of defeatism.

At least this important and intriguing election has started to spark, although it remains too close to call. Now comes the launch of the manifestos. These events are, like party conferences, of far more interest to insiders than voters. Yet this week’s is vital for the Tories: it is Cameron’s final chance before voting day to shake off the shackles by reimposing his compassionate credentials, reiterating his innate optimism and reminding voters that he understands their concerns.

Leading Tories hope this campaign is a rerun of 1992, when John Major’s focus on Labour’s fiscal intentions combined with uncertainties over Neil Kinnock’s leadership won them a surprise victory. Hence talk of tax bombshells, attacks on Miliband, fears over nuclear weapons. None of this is necessarily wrong amid the depressing tribal brutality of ballot-box politics – but nor does it offer much reason for wavering voters, especially the female half of the electorate, to rush out and endorse the party on 7 May.

Politics, like public relations, is most effective when adherents are true to their instincts. The Tories should play to Cameron’s most attractive qualities, not their own least appealing aspects. If not, it is possible to conclude this may indeed be 1992 redux – only this time with Miliband playing the Major role of underestimated leader who unexpectedly wins power.

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