Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Brown Factor

The digital (error) election; Your mic's still on Gordon; A sad spectacle; The guillotine moved into position

I was going to post something today about the internet effect on this election. However, Gordon Brown's gone and called some old lady in Rochdale 'bigoted', providing the first real gaffe of this campaign and further alienating himself from much of the electorate. So instead of any real analysis of the impact- or rather lack of impact- of online fundraising, the blogosphere and twitter I'll offer my thesis in a short paragraph before moving on to the calamity that is Labour, and Gordon Brown's, campaign.

I missed the first few days of the current election period whilst still on a family holiday in Cyprus so it wasn't until watching a muted Sky News in the departures lounge at Paphos airport, that I came across any real coverage of the campaign. The news being covered was Labour's dismissal of Stuart MacLennan, candidate for the Moray constituency, for some rather crude and expletive postings on his Twitter account. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the past two days have seen both Conservative and Labour suspend candidates for similar activities. Tory candidate Phillip Lardner was found to hold some rather outdated and intolerant views on homosexuality, openly expressed on his website, whilst Labour candidate John Cowan, in my home constituency of South-East Cambridgeshire*, fell foul of lewd comments he had made on internet forums. Whilst talk of stories from the blogosphere coming to dominate the news cycles, and Twitter being used as an effective mass campaigning tool have failed to materialise, the internet has still had an impact on the campaign. It's effect has been to add an extra layer of scrutiny upon those running for office, be it through their website, their Twitter or even forums completely unrelated to politics. What has become clear is that candidates enter the 'New Media' fray at their peril.

While the self-styled commentators of the internet have sat forlorn at their keyboards, failing to make the impact they had hoped, it is that age-old medium of TV that is defining this election. This is most obvious in the introduction of the TV debates that have taken place, adding a Presidential gloss to our electoral system. But what could prove to be more important in terms of the Labour vote, is this 28 seconds worth of footage of Gordon Brown speeding away from a meeting with ordinary voters- or 'plebs' as I'm sure he'd call them- in Rochdale. Whether the lady Brown's 'bigot' comment referred to is a jaundiced, old xenophobe is neither here nor there. What matters is the public's perception of Brown. This could well be the moment that he scuppers the Labour ship once and for all.

Labour's slip to third in the polls came largely as a result of the Liberal Democrat's unexpected surge in support after the ITV debate. However, the foundations for such a decline were set by entering the election with Brown still as leader. That he is resented on the right is little surprise- all Labour leaders are- but Brown's corrosive influence has been to alienate those remaining voters in the centre, who were part of the wave New Labour rode to power in 1997, and stuck with the party throughout the whole Blair era, Iraq and all. Through the Brown years there has been an exodus, creating the strong possibility that Labour will come third in the popular vote on May 6th.

Policy wise, confronting his biggest challenge, the financial crisis, Brown responded with what was close to a textbook response. Yet it is an inescapable fact that his cosying up to the City whilst Chancellor, allowing London to become the 'Guantanamo Bay' of the financial world (in that traders could get away with practises forbidden anywhere else), leaves some responsibility for the scale of the collapse at his feet. His profligacy in Number 11 also lies behind the size of deficit Britain now faces. His tenure as Prime Minister has been very much determined by errors he made before even taking the post.

At crucial moments Brown has appeared indecisive, from the election-that-never-was in the Autumn of 2007, to the expense scandal of last year. Within Downing Street he surrounded himself with a cabal that old Richard M. Nixon would have been proud off, a choice that blew up in his face with the McBride affair last Easter. And then there are the incessant media gaffes. Most of these have been innocent acts of incompetence (such as attending a summit of world leaders looking like this, or leading Al Gore into a cupboard at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit), but today's was the first to show his temperamental nature that has been much speculated upon. People who, till now, sympathised with him as a luckless man, struggling to deal with the constant press harassment that a modern day politician must endure, will find this error harder to forgive.

Should we reach a hung parliament, Labour might just hold on to power in a Lib-Lab coalition, though a potential dealbreaker in such a case may be the removal of Brown. It could be that it is Nick Clegg, rather than anyone from within Brown's own party, who finally stands on the fingers that have been clinging to the cliffs edge for so long. Should the Liberal Democrat's turn the other cheek to Labour's pleas or the Conservatives win an overall majority then Labour will have no choice but to jettison Brown and look to rebuild under a new leader. Though they currently stand just five points behind the Conservatives there remains a chance that the Labour vote could completely collapse, with those who sympathise with Labour beliefs but resent the current party, staying at home. If that's the case, then allowing Gordon Brown to remain at the head of the party for so long could have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Labour Party.

* Cowan's suspension so close to the election means that Labour can not now stand a candidate in the constituency. This means that the Lib Dem candidate, Johnathan Chatfield, who also contested the seat in 2005, could now mount a serious challenge on Jim Paice, MP for the area since 1987. The notional majority is 8,000, but there are now 10,000 or so Labour votes to be scrapped over. Though I'm voting here in York, it means my friends back home now have a vote worth a lot more... Should be interesting.

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