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Thursday, January 13, 2011 

The fickle media and a need for a narrative.

The media has always been a fickle beast, and in these fascinating days of 140 characters, 24-hour news cycles and other truly exciting web 2.0 developments it's somehow managed to gain an even shorter attention span. Before Christmas almost everyone was in agreement that Labour was doing horribly and that Ed Miliband was completely hopeless. The party was in disarray and some were already manoeuvring towards overthrowing the man who hadn't even been in the job for 100 days.

A couple of weeks later and it's clear that such thinking was absurd. Ed Miliband is now doing superbly, making himself seen and besting the government over the VAT rise. The polls, despite changing very little and still showing Labour way behind on the economy even if they're in the lead overall (as they were prior to Christmas) make clear that the party has gained momentum. This will be definitively sealed if they win the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election tonight, as predicted, and will correspondingly cast the Liberal Democrats into an existential crisis, or a score draw, as they're unfathomably spinning it. Perhaps they're trying to outdo the hyperbole of the hacks.

For those ever so slightly cynical, it should be noted that the only real change that's taken place is that Miliband has brought in a new head of press and "director of strategy and communications", both of whom just happen to have been journalists. Tom Baldwin was a chief reporter and Washington correspondent at the Times, and one of those accused by Lord Ashcroft (pots kettles etc) of leading a smear campaign against him which was formally settled with a front page clarification, although not before Ashcroft accused him of being thoroughly acquainted with certain exotic white powders, while Bob Roberts was political editor of the Mirror, a job formerly held by one Alastair Campbell. The sudden uplift in Labour's profile couldn't possibly be connected to two hacks networking with their former colleagues. Such things simply don't happen.

The middle of the road reality is that if things hadn't started looking more rosy for Labour come the turn of the year, Miliband really should have begun to get worried. Everyone knows the cuts are now about to fall or have already started to, many working locally in the public sector have been warned they're either at risk of losing their job or are being let go, and there's been the rise in VAT, with its direct effect on the price of fuel. Labour's biggest problem isn't Miliband, even if he's still showing up in the polls as an ineffective leader, it's that the coalition, sorry, Tory-led government's biggest success has been painting the party as being wholly responsible for the deficit. Even if the polling is coming towards the party on the cuts being bad for the economy and not being done fairly, they're still not trusted to run it themselves, with the key reason being the stewardship of the past administration. It doesn't matter whether or not Labour did what it had to, through the constant repetition from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats that everything they're now doing stems from Labour's economic incompetence, they've successfully managed to win the battle of the narratives.

This is why it's especially daft to posit that this is the perfect time to get rid of Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor. This isn't to deny that he's out of his depth, or at the least hasn't even bothered to read that economics primer for beginners as he half-joked when first appointed, it's that the very last thing Labour should be doing is putting either Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper back in charge of policy when both are so associated with the Treasury and Gordon Brown. While Labour could attempt a real fightback against the coalition's countervailing narrative, as Miliband somewhat tried, it isn't likely to succeed as the party has so few allies in the wider media. It's also to deny the inevitable: the party, despite make clear that it would cut the deficit more slowly than the Tories, hasn't proposed closing the gap entirely through taxation. Cuts are going to have to be made somewhere, just not as brutally or as cruelly as the coalition is doing. Alongside this the party should make the case for raising public spending again once the deficit has been closed, something the coalition has if not entirely ruled out then mostly suggested it will not be doing. This, sensibly, seems to be the position the party is moving towards. It might just help with the yo-yoing press coverage too. That really would be something.

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Divide and rule - always to hand when the lower orders start getting restless.

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