This is our truth, tell us yours
Alastair Campbell has done a brutal hatchet job on David Cameron here. It’s a neatly drawn but devastating pen portrait of Cameron as a shallow and venal opportunist. It plays well to the model of the government that is being peddled by George Osborne’s friends, that Cameron is the lightweight showman, Osborne the economic hardman and Clegg an irrelevance no more in control than Sooty. Campbell has done some writing about the key Tory players, not least here, where he adds in the idea of Osborne as ambitious and competitive.
Now here’s the odd thing. AC has himself said, on more than one occasion that Rule One of communications is to never confuse media opinion with public opinion. According to the Guardian the blog post about Cameron was unavailable for a while, possibly because Campbell himself recognised that the monoprismic version of Cameron would not chime with a wider audience who see Cameron in a multiplicity of ways.
Let me give you an example of the monoprism (Campbell’s word) works. In the history of New Labour, Campbell is the emotionally aware but hard as nails fixer, Brown the bad tempered and malicious one, and Mandelson the urbane and sophisticated smoothie who sails a little too close to the wind.
Now go and find the episode (it’s in the first 100 pages of The Blair Years) where Mandelson has a tantrum and tries to punch Campbell because he’s being too nice to Brown. Does that fit the monoprism?
There’s another example in one of the Campbell blogs I quoted earlier, of him going to do a book reading and Q&A, and being cheered by a typically Middle England audience when he attacked the Daily Mail. This doesn’t fit any conventional model of how we understand the media either – the Daily Mail is hugely popular, and yet also hugely unpopular to the extent that even people who read it will criticize it.
Devising a Labour media strategy that avoids the monoprism is part of the task if Labour is to win the next election. Rejecting the simplistic is part of the task – which is why, oddly, I think Campbell might have had second thoughts about his blog on Cameron. A better line of attack, for Milliband, might be to ask Cameron if he’s changed his mind about austerity in the same way he’s changed his mind about christianity or if he will change his mind again. On foodbanks, Labour might choose to ask not about those unemployed who need them, but how far Cameron will let under-employment go – to the point where the working poor need foodbanks?
Britain is now a complicated, diverse and divergent set of communities, pockmarked by rural and remote poverty as well as the urban poverty that has been such a feature of Labour and left wing commentary over the last thirty years. If you doubt me, take a look at the average earnings in Berwick, where under-employment in service and care industries means many households do not appear on the out of work figures but are close to or below the poverty line. Such a message, about a workforce deprived of security and stability by market forces, can also chime well with the young workers of the big cities, lurching from six month contract to six month contract. The idea of the welfare state as a safety net for the working poor rather than a support system for the non-working and unskilled would be a return to its origins; the welfare state is a much easier sell as the bank of last resort for those who strive and don’t have access to the bank of mum and dad that made Cameron what he is today.
In the first chapters of The Blair Years AC makes regular reference to he and TB joking about how they didn’t want to blow the 40 point lead they enjoyed in the polls. As Bob Worcester was fond of pointing out to those who credited Mandelson and Campbell with the 1997 election win, a balloon on a stick could have won for Labour, and Campbell is usually the first to acknowledge that his role was to avoid losing rather than to seek to win (unlike Mandelson).
Labour’s job is different now. It has to win, and to win it has to emphasize complexity. It has o acknowledge that there is not one Britain, but many, and to refine its one nation message to reflect that we are one nation but many communities.