All the focus in this morning’s reportage of the Crewe & Nantwich by-election has, naturally, been on what it signifies for the next general election. My interest is somewhat nerdier but potentially, I think, more significant for the future of politics than the question of whether Tweedledum or Tweedledumber will be running the country after 2009.
Matthew Taylor, former head of Labour’s policy unit, was just on the Today programme laying the blame for the loss of Crewe & Nantwich squarely at the door of an “inept” campaign strategy. The campaign, lest we need reminding, saw activists wearing top hats and the Crewe Labour website adopting a front page which suggested the Tory candidate was a con man (subsequently replaced, I see, with something less overtly offensive and equally desperate). The kind of self-conscious “nasty” stuff that campaigning tacticians insist always, always works. Labour insiders insisted exactly that during this campaign – that they had at least moved the talk of the town off the 10p fudge and on to Labour’s dreadful campaign tactics, which is a sort of vindication, I suppose. None of that defence was in evidence this morning.
Jim Naughtie rightly (not three words often seen in association) picked Taylor up on this – so either Downing Street didn’t send anyone good to Crewe, or they weren’t listened to when they got there. Which is it? Danny Finkelstein corrected (there we go again) the position aptly: Labour ran a bad campaign because they are in trouble, they’re not in trouble because they ran a bad campaign.
In order to answer Naughtie’s question, I’ll just remind you of the local Labour leader’s response when asked about the top hat/con men stunts. “You’ll have to ask the experts.” This was a central campaign, all right. If it worked, it was going to be redeemed as a bit of fun, but since it failed, it is the ready trussed-up scapegoat. And its success or failure was purely dependent on the existing party weather.
If you doubt this, look at the Tories’ merry distribution of 8,000 people’s data to a Manx radio station (I’d love to know how that happened, by the way. How do you accidentally send something to the Isle of Man?) If that had been Labour, it would have been heralded as the final death knell and the swing to the Tories would have been even stronger. As it is, the punters on Andrew Sparrow’s live blog greeted the news with near-indifference when a Lib Dem councillor raised it. They were not, I think, doubting that the blunder had actually taken place. They were merely questioning whether it was all that important – after all, if it had been “serious” wouldn’t the media have indicated this to them by making more of a fuss?
I would like to think that evangelicals for negative campaigning across all parties are watching and taking note of this. I am increasingly troubled by the intellectual bankruptcy of negative campaigning and the way people continue to believe that it works no matter what happens. It seems the proponents of negative campaigning literally cannot lose an argument. If we do well, it’s because of negative campaigning. If we do badly, it would have been even worse had it not been for the negative campaigning. There are probably dreadfully keen types out there this very minute theorising that we were squeezed in Crewe because we didn’t do enough negative campaigning. Heads I win, tails you lose.
It’s not just the cynicism on show in Labour’s approach to Crewe that turns the stomach. I’m sick of the sheer uncritical stupidity of negative campaigning. I’m sick of the way the proponents of negativity wave their willies around – yeah, well, you gotta be prepared to play hardball in this game, there are no points for Mr Nice Guy, hur hur hur, just as well you called me in… It’s all just a great big wank for them, probably a great big compensatory wank for having been bullied at school.
If Crewe tells us anything about the future of politics in this country beyond the purely literal, it is that very negative spin, like very positive spin, only works if the wind is in your favour. Self-appointed hardball-playing cretinous wankers of all affiliations should take note.