Over breakfast the other day a friend of mine, a London Labour stalwart, raised with glee the first few weeks of the new Mayor Johnson administration. “Look at all the things they’ve got wrong”, he chortled. “Simon Milton’s appointment (the first time round), Ray Lewis, the Rise festival. Mistakes all over the place. And this is just the start.” This was all, apparently, making him and his colleagues feel a little more upbeat than they had in quite a while.
I found that extraordinary. A normally very savvy guy, he had forgotten one of the golden rules of politics: you can’t fight the zeitgeist What this rule means, in broad terms, is that you can’t persuade people to swim against an obvious political current. To turn cod-psychologist for a minute, you can’t force everyone into some sort of collective cognitive dissonance.
At the moment the tide is with Boris – he has won a great, and somewhat unexpected, victory; he is new and fresh; he is, in short, on a roll. And that means that just about anything can go ‘wrong’ for him right now, and none of it will make any difference at all.
To prove the point, here’s an example from recent history. The early years of Tony Blair were not all plain sailing: the names “Ecclestone” and “Davies” may still prompt a shudder of recognition. But he could do no wrong at that stage. None of it touched him. He was the zeitgeist. And Boris is currently in roughly the same place.
The bigger point is what the rule tells us about Brown vs. Cameron. What Labour strategists don’t seem to see is that Cameron is now, suddenly, the zeigeist too. They can’t rubbish him. The ‘all mouth no trousers’ strategy won’t work. Taking him on on his own turf – knife crime, the broken society, education reform – none of it will make any difference. People are not even listening. At the moment Labour just has to take it.
All it can do is talk positively about its track record (hard though this may be under current economic circumstances), and be upbeat about its future plans. But on the plus side, the zeitgeist changes. Might Cameron have peaked too soon? Can the polls possibly stay where they are? What is a la mode now may not be in two years’ time.
The lesson for Labour is this: don’t fight it. Keep your head down, be positive – and pray for the tide to turn.