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Friday, May 23, 2008 

All change at Crewe.

Just like how it was a foregone conclusion that Labour would win the general election in 2005, the question was only by how much, it was much the same in Crewe and Nantwich yesterday. The swing to the Conservatives was slightly less than 20%, but the more stark figure was the majority of over 8,000. Mid-term blues, economic woes and everything else besides, to go from having a 8,000 majority in one of your safest seats to being beaten by over 8,000 votes three years later is nothing short of a catastrophe.

While the above and the horrendously bad Labour campaign strategy are the main reasons for the loss, it's the crystallisation of everything that has been wrong with New Labour which makes this defeat different. At long last, the hollowness of Labour's words has been exposed, and by, in the unpleasant euphemism, Labour's "core". New Labour's election strategy has been simple and up till now effective: firstly, stress economic competence and how wonderful the end of boom and bust has been, as well as the spending on public services; second, be as authoritarian on law and order as possible without pissing off the Grauniad-left too much and without pleasing the Sun/Daily Mail enough; and lastly, make clear how awful it would be if those Tories got back in.

All three of these things were in evidence in Crewe, except the economic confidence line had been reversed. Rather than stressing how wonderful everything is, which would be suicidal, the decision was to put that Brown and his puppet Darling would make everything all right again after the "global" circumstances have calmed down. This has always been a specious line when Northern Rock has been one of the biggest casualties of what used to be called a crisis of capitalism rather than a "credit crunch", and this was brought home by the anger in Crewe about the 10p rate, hitting home just as the bills are beginning to pile up. All of Labour's huffing and puffing over criminal justice policies in the past few months, the Daily Mail bribing over cannabis, Jacqui Smith's advocating of the police behaving in exactly the same way as the "yobs" themselves and the continuing, bizarre, obsession with 42 days, none did anything to placate the electorate, and nor did the blatantly xenophobic and insulting playing up of how the Conservatives don't support ID cards for either foreign nationals or us lucky normal citizens. Last, the playing up of the "toff" card was the substitute for "don't let the Tories wreck everything" ploy and it was both so pathetic, so desperate and so vacant that it should have been the final straw for the activists themselves.

The loss could have been mitigated somewhat if Labour had bothered to notice just one or two things. If you were going to do a personal attack, don't be so staggeringly obvious and unsubtle. Instead of targeting Timpson for being well-off or a "toff", attack him for being another identikit Tory politician in a sharp suit in either his 30s or 40s who doesn't seem to know what he's talking about other than what he's told by the higher-ups. Timpson's winning speech was stunning in its crassness and triumphalism; some might say he's entitled to be after such a campaign, but all I saw was the sneer which so often also appears to be on the face of George Osborne, who he more than resembles. It was impossible to do this though because of Labour's biggest mistake: Tamsin Dunwoody herself. If Timpson was unpleasant, then the fourth(?) generation of the Dunwoody political clan was both charmless and sour. Again, perhaps being given such a poisoned chalice excuses her mood somewhat, but being so directly to interviewers as she was is not going to help you win over the floating voter. Gwyneth herself might have had those qualities also, but she made up for them through her independence and contempt for New Labour, neither of which her daughter obviously had, as the campaign made clear. After all, what is more contemptuous, imposing a rich boy in a suit on a working-class town or a party which is meant to be all about equality and the dead-end of meritocracy sticking another Dunwoody on the ballot and expecting the electorate to not notice the difference?

Moreover, Labour missed the most gaping, open goal since the footing slipped from under John Terry on Wednesday. In one of his rare forays into the hostile world of the normal person, or at least those inclined to give him a harder time than others seem to, David Cameron was faced by an almost Paxman-esque local who demanded, three times, whether the Tories would reinstate the 10p rate. Each time Cameron refused to answer, for the reason we all know being that he and the rest of his party couldn't give a stuff about it in actuality but are playing on it because of the damage it's caused. How did Labour fail to seize on this, and not make clear that the hole had been filled (somewhat) and that the Conservatives were not even offering any solid policy on what they would do other than keep public spending at the same level as Labour initially before moving towards "sharing the proceeds of growth"?

Granted, doing either of these things was not going to win the seat for Labour. With a better run campaign however, it could have at least stopped the swing being so damaging that it really does look as if it's curtains, if not for Gordon Brown immediately, then definitely for Labour itself. Credit due to Cameron, he has the same knack as Blair occasionally did for capturing the moment, and his declaration that "this is the death of New Labour" is now going to be next to impossible to shake off. Coming with another wounding performance in the Commons on Wednesday, where Brown walked straight into Cameron's trap, for all his lack of difference with the Blair vision of a modern politician, Cameron now looks almost unassailable as the next prime minister. As others have stated, this result is still not a vote of confidence in Tory policy; it's still far too sparse for that. What it is however is a sign that voters now think that Cameron and his party are worth a go, so fed up have they become with Labour and also, sadly, Gordon Brown himself.

I say sadly because I still think that Brown had the qualities to be a great prime minister. Unlike Blair up until his messianic streak took him wholly and Major entirely, Brown does believe in what he's doing, and always has. He's however stumbled into the top job and not found it like he thought it would be; no longer can he play like he's still in opposition like he did at the Treasury, running an insurgency against Blair and his worst attempts at pitiful and needless reforms, making the right arguments and often winning. He can't distance himself any longer from the government as a whole; he is the government, and his continuation of the worst of Blairism while not making the changes he's promised has brought both the party and himself to the brink, although it was always Blair that did the damage in the first place, and continues to do through the memoirs and constant recollections.

Again then we go through the suggestions, advice and in some cases, pleas from both outsiders and insiders on what he needs to do. Again there is no sign that Brown is really listening. Both John McDonnell on the socialist left and Compass on the soft left urge and urge again that they stop the dismal triangulation and return to Labour's roots. Last week's draft Queen speech showed that Brown has no intentions of doing that, and he's hardly going to rip that up and start again. It would actually make him even weaker if he did that, welcome as it would be. The least worst thing he could do would be a reshuffle: acknowledge the walking disaster that is "Wacky" Jacqui Smith and sack her; get rid of Hazel fucking Blears and send her to the gulag; perhaps move Jack Straw to be chancellor; and swallow his pride and bring back some of the old big beasts, like Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and Frank Field, if only because it's better for them to be inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Then more or less do what was suggested after the local elections, by getting rid of ID cards, bringing the troops back from Iraq, scrapping 42 days and most radically of all, abolish tax credits and raise the very poorest out of tax altogether while helping the reasonably well-off that also benefit through taking away in the first place less, all raised by either a windfall tax on the obscene oil/gas profits and/or by taxing the rich and especially the super-rich more.

All of this would completely wrong foot the Tories. They could play it as desperation and it might work but it would also truly show Brown to be listening. However, as we've seen time and time again when politicians have promised to listen, all they've done is carry on just as before. With no real chance of a leadership challenge, and with even the possibility of one only turning the electorate off more with the party gazing at its navel, Crewe and Nantwich along with David Cameron seem to have written Labour's epitaph.

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