Confessions of a Political Animal

September 5, 2008

Should Gordon take his cue from the GOP?

By which I don’t mean the Prime Minister should become a minimal-government, liberal-bashing, gun-totting, wilderness-drilling right winger.

Nor am I proposing that he adopts Senator McCain’s less than overwhelming oratory style. And I can’t see Brown quite pulling off a Palin…

However, one of the most intriguing aspects of the Republican National Convention has been the manner in which the party has positioned itself as one of opposition. An observer arriving in Minneapolis-St Paul without the most basic political knowledge would, by all accounts, had been hard pressed to know that this was the party of the current President.

In his speech to the Convention, for example, McCain laid into those currently in power: 

And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd – change is coming.

And former presidential candidate Mitt Romney struck a similar note (and if you watch his speech, managed to do so even less effectively than McCain):

Last week, the Democrats talked about change. But let me ask you — what do you think Washington is right now, liberal or conservative? […] We need change all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington! We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington — throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain!

Obviously, a lot of this is traditional Republican East Coast-bashing, guaranteed a good round of applause at Convention. Some of it inevitably relates to the Democrats currently holding both Houses. But the overall picture that this rhetoric is meant to leave in swing voters’ minds involves painting the opposition party as the guardians of a failed status quo and vested interests.

Could Gordon Brown and the rest of the cabinet pull off something similar in Manchester? In a number of small ways, Brown is in a similar position to McCain, representing an unpopular party and government, widely seen as out of touch and intellectualy bankrupt. Until recently, Obama’s arrival at the White House seemed just as inevitable as David Cameron’s ascencion to Number 10 still does.

With a change of administration looking like a fait accompli, an opportunity does present itself for the incumbent party to rebrand itself almost as an insurgency against the presumptive party of government. For Labour, this would mean not generalised, personalised and historically-based attacks on the Conservatives, but rather a forensic dissection of those policies the Tories have produced, highlighting their failure to detail alternatives across a huge range of key issues and pointing out their closeness to a wide range of unsavoury vested interests. At a time of economic hardship, there could not be a better time for Labour to re-assert itself as being on the side of the ‘ordinary’ person (just as long as someone can think up a less patronising way of putting that!).

After all, if the Conservatives – 20 points ahead in some polls – manage to get through their own conference without any sign of hubris, it will be a minor miracle. And nothing turns the electorate off quite like an apparent assumption of impending victory. A strategy of ‘popular insurgency’ would be a gamble for Brown, but he is fast running out of cards. If nothing else, it might go some way towards shifting popular perception of the Labour Party and lessening the scale of defeat.

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