Why Labour should be spending a lot more time attacking Tory efficiency than Tory cruelty

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April 5, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

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The advertising guru Maurice Saatchi noted, just after the shock election victory by the Conservatives in 1992, that ‘cruel but efficient’ still wins over ‘caring but incompetent’ every time. The memory of the 1978 Winter of Discontent,  the mistaken application in 1976 for an IMF bailout due to incorrect Treasury figures, and the internal chaos of the party in the 1980s as it tried to shake out its militant wing still hung over the party as Neil Kinnock tried to wrest Downing Street from Margaret Thatcher’s replacement John Major. 

The Tories in this current campaign have been following Saatchi’s guide, noting that the choice is between Tory competence and Labour chaos, and that Labour’s tie up with the SNP will be one between a party that wants to bankrupt Britain with one that wants to break up Britain. Labour for their part have been trumpeting their caring nature against the cruelty of the Tories. Yet, as Professor Tim Bale pointed out this week in an excellent piece in the New Statesman, the ‘cruel’ bit is ‘priced into the Tories’ reputation’, so Labour really should be going for the ‘efficiency’ part. Given that Tory efficiency is often cited by floating voters as the only reason they ever hold their noses and vote for the Conservatives, Labour should be doing a lot more to remove that reason. There would be plenty to work with.

Bale lists them – “assorted prisoner escapes, self-inflicted wounds and parliamentary shenanigans on the Health and Social Care Bill, Lords and boundary reform, and Europe, the jerry cans in the garage suggestion to beat a petrol shortage that never came, the chaos at the UKBA and Passports Agency, the selling of Royal Mail for a song, the botched/snail’s pace introduction of Personal Independence Payments and universal credit, the bizarre goings on at the ‘Big Society Network’, not to mention the biggest cock-ups of all, namely the missing by a mile of much-trumpeted targets on net migration and on deficit and debt reduction.”

Bale also notes the words of Ed Miliband at the 2012 Labour Party conference, just after George Osborne’s ‘omnishambles’ budget, in which he not only introduced the ‘tax cut for millionaires’ that was reducing the top rate of tax to 45%, but also ended up trying to tax grannies, pasties and caravans. Miliband summed it up by asking if we had ever seen, ‘a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?’

Going at Tory inefficiency is going to be more effective than their cruelty also because the Tories have an answer to the cruelty attack. They argue that in order to rescue us from ‘Labour’s mess’ they need to make some hard decisions, resulting in the austerity of the last 5 years and possibly the next five too. But what answer would they have to the charge of incompetence, especially one that Labour could easily say has been brought about by ideological obsession (e.g. universal credit and free schools) and an inability to grasp the lives of ordinary people.

Don’t think it can’t work either. In 1974, Ted Heath was beaten because his government had literally not been able to keep the lights on (we had had a three day week in 1973 due to a miners’ strike). In 1997, even though Chancellor Ken Clarke could point to excellent economic figures, the memory of ‘Black Wednesday’, when we had had to dro out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, Sterling had fallen almost 40% in a day, and we were the laughing stock of Europe, lingered in the forefront of floating voters’ minds. 

So, come on Ed, there’s still time to turn this into the valency (competence) election. 

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