If there is a theme running through Labour’s recent attacks on the Government, it is the criticsm that current coalition policy is too ‘ideological’. Others have written about the intellectual flaws in this argument, but from a comms perspective it appears that Ed, Ed et al are missing a real trick with this approach.
First, regardless of the reality behind it, the ‘ideology’ argument is unlikely to fly – if ever a Government looked like it was just muddling along, trying to do the right thing from a manegerial perspective, it’s the current lot. This is partly due to some clever comms from Cameron and Clegg around the formation of the coalition, but also due to the public’s perception of coalition government itself. ‘Together in the National Interest’ may be a rather grating slogan, but it does chime with the views of a still-confused public as to why the coalition exists, and what it is for – and, for the moment, this message is getting through.
But the main problem with this line of attack is that there is clearly a much more powerful stick with which to beat the Government. A few months ago I was talking to an astute Labour backbencher, who shared his view that if the coalition totters, it will be down to a “competence issue”. He was right.
A shambolic NHS reform process. Vince’s loose lips leading to departmental reorganisation. The child benefits debacle. Shoddy FCO evacuation procedures. An ill-thought through forest sale. Michael Gove’s myriad education U-turns. It’s not hard to come up with a list of high-profile examples which suggest that it’s the nuts and bolts of governing with which the coalition is so palpably struggling
(And who on earth advised Nick Clegg that he was the right man to present the Government’s social mobility strategy without visualising today’s headlines?)
The opposition has has some success in painting individual ministers as out of their depth, but to achieve real cut through with the electorate they need to present a more coherent, broader, and utterly relentless attack on the Government’s competence to govern, from top to bottom. This, rather than some vague and sinister allusion to the Thatcherism that won four elections for the Tories not that long ago, is the coalition’s real weak spot.
The only problem is, of course, that to be taken seriously as a credible alternative, Labour will need to prove that they themselves possess the requisite levels of competence to govern. And that is a much more fundamental challenge than getting the messaging right.