Better the devil you know?

Make no mistake; this was intended to be the start of Labour’s comeback. Never mind that the Prime Minister’s Warwick rally only unveiled his party’s ‘election campaign themes’ nor that the significance of his speech was overwhelmed in a matter of hours by allegations of ‘bullying’ and Ashley Cole’s infidelity. The mass cabinet turnout, the coloured tickets carefully indicating where each audience member was to sit by merit of their personal significance and the fervent pre-speech talk of whether an electoral turn around could be engineered all pointed to events set to take place on that widely rumoured date of 6 May.

Gordon himself was in no mood to mince his words. Admitting “I’m not perfect” and “Labour hasn’t done everything right”, his plea for voters to “take a second look at us and take a long hard look at them” was convincing if only due to the conviction upon which he pressed each syllable. As one would expect in front of a home crowd the party in office didn’t need to resort to specific policy announcements to whip up a sense of positivity. Instead the crucial cameramen and newscasters scattered across the International Digital Lab were bombarded with “Labour’s secret weapon”, its beliefs and values that the PM and assorted ministers promised would deliver a “future fair for all”.

It wasn’t the rhetoric on show by the man in Number 10 however, that gave the greatest clue as to where Labour think their chances in a General Election year lie. It was the characteristically generous warm-up routine provided by an effervescent team of Darling, Johnson, Mandelson and Cooper who seemed to have borrowed some pitch side presentational skills from the BBC’s Winter Olympics coverage.

Desperate times call for double measures of over sincerity and with Gordon Brown’s personal approval rating consistently hovering around the 28% mark, there was a deliberate attempt here to spread the burden of responsibility. “Thank you Yvette”, chirped a disturbingly jolly Peter Mandelson, “and thank you for what your department is doing to help young people.” Likewise for one of the brief instances of his tenure when he appeared to be on the front foot, Alistair Darling posited himself directly against the “utter folly” his opposite number George Osborne would bring forth in an “age of austerity” should the Shadow Chancellor find high office.

As an electoral strategy such a notion of collective action is not without its merits. One only has to take note of the recent Conservative poster campaign to see how the Conservatives would prefer to frame the election. Brown vs. Cameron may be nowhere near akin to Frazier vs. Ali but in a choice between one leader with a tattered record sheet and another with no record sheet to speak of at all then ‘better the devil you know logic’ is unlikely to win out.

It’s already well established that voters haven’t welcomed the prospect of a Conservative government with as many open arms as Cameron would like. Up until last Saturday though, the Labour response to the Tory threat has relentlessly attacked the PM in waiting’s air of inauthenticity whilst taking great care not to explicitly spell out doubts whether an Eton bred MP has the empathy to steer a recession stricken nation in a compassionate manner. If Labour can broaden their predatory scope beyond Cameron to the potential liabilities of Osbourne, Hague and Clarke and the veritable anonymity of Fox, Grayling and Gove, then they will at a bare minimum begin to level the electoral playing field.

Naturally the man who days later The Sun would dub ‘The Prime Monster’ will have to carve a mini renaissance himself or face the nadir of his Premiership. When I confronted him with this question in his ready-made post-speech press pit Gordon seemed robustly confident.

Greeting myself and each and every other member of the room with a robust handshake and a smile so stiff it could have shattered the wall of glass windows behind him he replied, “You’ve got to judge me on what I do not on what others think I do. And I think what I try to do is to be fair, to be honest, to work hard and to inspire people about the real potential of this country.”

The true test for Mr Brown and the Labour Party will of course lie at events which are not self-organised on the morning of your his 59th birthday. Already within an hour of the address BBC News 24 were calling into the question the validity of a “future fair for all” slogan when social mobility has dropped and a 10p tax cut has occurred under Brown’s tenure.

Nevertheless the tentative strategy unveiled last Saturday should have the prescribed effect of making voters take a “long hard look at the Tories” whether they dislike enough of what they see to vote Labour is a matter the party has three months to resolve.


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