by Alex Massie
There is something almost admirably bold or shameless* about Labour's campaign in this election. Douglas Alexander who combines the roles of Gordon Brown's Mini-Me and Labour's general election co-ordinator, spoke at the LSE yesterday and outlined, one understands, some of the "core" principles dividing lines upon which Labour plan to base their attack. These are:
1. Security versus Tory Risk
2. Protecting Frontline Services verusus Tory Cuts
3. New Industry and Jobs versus Tory Recession
4. Many versus The Few
Selling this to the electorate is a risky business. In the first place it asks punters to forgive all that is past and consider it of no account while threatening an even worse future if the Conservatives get in. To take these in order:
1. There is no security at present because the government is running out of money. Sure, Labour suggest, the patient has cancer but imagine how much worse it would be with a different doctor? Some consolation, given that the existing doctor's misdiagnosis has exacerbated the situation in the first place.
2. A simple untruth. Alistair Darling will be forced to deliver an austerity budget later this month. Cuts are coming regardless of the election result and all that remains to be decided is the extent and nature of said cuts.
3. Anyone listening to this argument might have to pinch themselves. Haven't we just been through a recession the Chancellor himself said was "the worst in 60 years"? Why, yes, we have.
4. Students of American politics will recognise this as a classic piece of Shrumism. And that's no surprise given that Bob Shrum is an old friend of Gordon Brown's and one of his closest advisors.
This latter leads one to wonder whether the Curse of Shrrum can cross the Atlantic. Shrum, who has, if memory serves, worked on eight losing Democratic presidential elections, plays an amusing cameo in Andrew Rawnsley's new book, The End of the Party, an aptly-titled chronicle of Labour's second and third terms.
Rawnsley, who is impeccably-connected in Labour circles, tells the story of Brown's speech to the Labour party conference in 2007. This came at time when it seemed as though Brown might call an early election - one that, at the time and in retrospect, he would probably have won:
Gordon Brown opened his speech to the conference with a jab at humour. "People say to me: 'Would you recommend this job to anyone else?' I say: 'Not yet.'" He continued with the projection of himself as a "father of the nation". "Tested again and again," he said of the summer terror plots, floods and outbreaks of animal diseases. "The resilience of the British people has been powerful proof of the character of our country." What he hoped to suggest was that his handling of them was powerful proof of why he should remain as Prime Minister. The speech was rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation from a Labour party currently happy to worship the man who had put them back ahead in the polls. The overall media conclusion was that Brown was a leader in command of his party and ruthlessly preparing the ground for an election.
Rupert Murdoch, though, did not think there should be an early election and was using his biggest-selling daily organ to try to prevent one. "Not his finest hour" was the verdict of the Sun, which attacked Brown for dismissing the calls for a referendum on the EU treaty. Brown's anger about that was as nothing compared with his reaction on Wednesday evening, when he learnt of the coverage in the Times. Danny Finkelstein, the paper's comment editor, a former speech-writer to John Major and a keen student of American politics, had been struck by the familiarity of many phrases in Brown's speech. Finkelstein confirmed his suspicions by Googling any line that sounded like a speech-writer's phrase. Brown said: "Sometimes people say I am too serious." That was awfully similar to a sentence used by Al Gore in 2000 when he accepted the Democratic nomination: "I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious." Finkelstein identified several examples of phrases recycled from speeches by Gore and Bill Clinton, both former clients of Bob Shrum, adviser and speech-writer for Brown. When Finkelstein posted it on his blog that afternoon, the deputy editor of the Times, Ben Preston, thought it would make "a great splash" for the next morning's paper.
When Brown learnt that the Times planned to lead its front page with how he had rehashed American phrases, he was "incandescent", says a member of his inner circle. From his suite at the Highcliff, he rang complaining to Preston and Robert Thomson, the editor of the Times. "It's a Tory plot," he raged, trying to bludgeon them into pulling the story. "This won't be forgotten." He was maddest of all with his own team. Brown went berserk with Bob Shrum, whose long friendship did not protect the American from a ferocious blast of Brown's temper. "How could you do this to me, Bob?" Brown screamed at a shaking Shrum. "How could you fucking do this to me?" Then the Prime Minister started yelling at the other aides present: "Just get out! Just get out of the fucking room!" Sue Nye became so alarmed that she felt compelled to come into the room to protect the unfortunate Shrum.
Brown continued to rage about it in private for days afterwards. "It totally threw Gordon off," says one of his inner circle. "When he should have been thinking about the election, he was boiling about this."
(See Danny Finkelstein's column today for more on this. As is always the case Danny's column is a must-read and if you're interested in British politics you should follow his stuff. His blog is here.)
But, my, poor Shrum! Blamed for poor Gordon fluffing and funking the moment that was, as was apparent at the time and is even more so now, his best chance of winning a popular mandate of his own. Such, you may say, are the wages of sin and all that and perhaps Shrum's exhausted, flabby rhetoric deserves to be put in the mouth of a charmless misanthrope** such as our current Prime Minister. But still, even Shrum might deserve a break from time to time though we should also be thankful that he's not, you know, a racing tipster or holding down a serious, valuable job like that.
*Saying this should not be construed as an endorsement of the Conservative party, nor as a suggestion that they might be shamelessness-free themselves.
**Is there such a thing as a charming misanthrope? You tell me at alexmassieATgmail.com
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