And your enemies closer

Close-marking’ is an electoral strategy, the invention of the now legendary Labour Party spokesman Alastair Campbell and strategist Peter Mandelson.

Ligue 1 Bordeaux vs Nice 2008 , photograph by Hervé Simon on Flickr
Actual close-marking (Hervé Simon)

The idea is that an opposition party assembles focus groups and runs polls to identify the government policies that are popular in the target electorate and then copies those policies. Remember Gordon Brown’s pledge to stick to Tory government spending commitments? Jack Straw’s reprisal of Tory crime policy? David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, in their splendid book about the 1997 election, say that the Labour Party in opposition

…tried to ensure that it was never seen in fundamental opposition to popular government policies. Each party was getting similar messages from its focus groups about what the public wanted or would react favourably to; each therefore tended to find itself saying the same thing.

The British General Election of 1997

There’s much about the Starmer regime that resembles a Tony Blair tribute act. This is not an insult. Blair and his machine were hugely, unprecedentedly successful – and there was a lot more to it than close-marking during the 1992-97 Major government – but it’s Starmer’s profound hope that staying tactically close to the Conservative government’s programme will enable Labour to slide into office in 2024 in much the same way. Close-marking is back.

See if you can spot it in the way Yvette Cooper finds a way to object to detaining asylum-seekers on prison hulks without actually criticising the policy (the quotes in this article show that Cooper is a close-marking ninja – she should give workshops). There’s something impressive about a politician who can muster something that resembles straight-backed moral righteousness about a policy while studiously avoiding the moral void at its heart.

Observe also the impressive way Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting sticks tightly to government policy on the NHS, urging ‘reform’, even endorsing a Tory think-tank’s seven-step programme. Streeting is another close-marking maestro. He can speak with visible passion about policy differences that are vague or almost undetectable. His big idea for the NHS is to train more hospital doctors. A masterpiece of stating the obvious and understating the problem at the same time. When asked if he supports the striking nurses and junior doctors he says “how could I?” Good question, Wes.

Close-marking explains the delicate way the Labour front bench steps around criticism of big government policies – even ones that have been shown to be catastrophic or that stick in the throats of members and supporters. Government policies are always ‘poorly-implemented’ or ‘too little, too late’. Sometimes they just ‘don’t go far enough’ or they’re ‘what Labour suggested years ago’.

Often it’s down to style. The key is never to come at a policy in policy terms but only ever in presentation terms. Government policies are ‘panicky’ or ‘desperate’ or ‘chasing headlines’. Politics of this balletic form can evidently produce the goods – it can reassure voters nervous about change and it contributed to Labour’s biggest victory ever – but it can also be confusing and alienating. It necessarily weakens important political contrasts, drains the antagonism out of the democratic to-and-fro, makes it harder for voters to identify with a platform that is, apparently, very like the other one.

Close-marking produces a shallow politics of aesthetics, of carefully-maintained presentational difference and it’s by definition helpless in the face of more agonistic forms. Populists laugh in the face of this kind of positional calculation. Only Britain’s anachronistic electoral system – where total victory can be secured by moving a small percentage of votes from one side to the other – protects it. This approach is an irrelevance now in almost every other democracy.

And an obvious problem with close-marking is that if it works and you win power you risk being stranded on the arrid policy plateau just vacated by your opponents, with all of its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You’ve inherited the exhausted, lame-duck programme of the defeated party and switching into a viable policy programme that’s not tethered to the loser’s manifesto takes genius-level political skills. Good luck with that.

Occasionally, of course, it’s possible to identify a government policy you think you don’t have to shadow closely – one you can safely distance yourself from, that you don’t need to dance around. Ed Miliband tried this with immigration (remember the mug?) and Starmer has settled on locking up paedophiles as his signature policy for the opening of hostilities.

As many have pointed out, though, the risk here is that electors don’t believe you and the message doesn’t land because what you propose seems out of character or opportunistic. Worse, you appear clumsy and cynical and Stevenage Woman remains unmoved.

The 2024 General Election campaign has begun.

End of the line

The Conservative Party is, famously, the most successful political party in history.

The party is a shape-shifting cockroach that’s survived the whole industrial era, the expansion of the franchise, the growth of the cities and the urban middle class, revolution all across Europe, secularisation and the erosion of the power of the gentry. It shouldn’t be here – it should have died in a country house in Hampshire in about 1920. The Tory party is obviously indestructible. But it has its moments – usually right at the end of a long period in power. Like now for instance.

I’m a bit geeky about the fantastic Nuffield Election Studies books; fat retrospective reference books, full of data and scholarly description, published a year or so after each election since 1945. For many editions, the books were very much the domain of celebrity psephologists David Butler and Anthony King. I’ve got a pile of them, going back to 1966.

The data’s mostly redundant, of course, since you can get it all on Wikipedia now but the essays are the main thing anyway. And often a useful reminder that there’s not much that’s new even about the present political polycrisis (clusterfuck? Imbroglio?).

I was looking at the 1997 edition, mainly because I was getting all sorts of weird deja-vu vibes from the conduct of the present government. The same kind of end-of-the-line feeling that haunted the Major government swept away by Labour in 1997 clings to the current lot. Sunak and his crew of millionares, spivs and bullies seem to have got stuck at the tawdry end of the conservative policy spectrum, much as Major and his awful cabinet did.

For years now it’s been all VIP lanes, complicated tax avoidance schemes, highly-remunerative second jobs, huge secret loans and preferment for old pals: the whole shopping list of cheesy political misbehaviour. It won’t have escaped your attention that we’ve even got a full-blown ‘cash-for-access’ scandal brewing.

So let’s catalogue some correspondences between the end of the Sunak period and the end of the Major period:

Sleaze, sleaze and more sleaze

To state the obvious, Major’s five years in office were marked, like no other government of the modern era, by scandal and impropriety (enter Boris Johnson from stage right: “hold my beer”). Major’s government was beset by domestic, sexual, financial and propriety scandals – and they kept coming. It seemed that every time Major sought to reset the government’s standing with electors, there was another one. Cash for questions, Jonathan Aitken at the Paris Ritz, David Mellor’s holiday in Marbella, Asil Nadir’s watch… So many scandals that they’re now on the curriculum in British schools.

Of course, in comparison with the record of the current Tory government – especially over the last five years or so – the offences of Michael Mates and Neil Hamilton begin to look almost quaint, especially when you consider just how difficult it has become to dislodge an offending Minister or MP. Surely time to update the A-level Politics sylabus.

The chicken run

A still from the animated film Chicken Run showing a terrified chicken n close-up
A chicken, running

As the Major government ground on, Tory MPs – conscious of the polling and of their already-dwindling majority – began to seek safer seats to stand in. Boundary changes announced earlier in the Parliament that were hitting smaller, Tory-held constituencies, contributed to the spectacle. Today’s polling, even after the Rishi bounce, continues to look grim for the government – the Tories could be reduced to an all-time low of 113 seats in 2024. Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat certainly can’t be considered safe, and, although his constituency party reselected him last month, it must be likely that he’ll be switched to a safer seat in time for the election (Johnson must be regretting that he didn’t become MP for Hertsmere – 172 places further up the table of safer seats – when he had the chance). The thoroughly Darwinian shuffling and selecting and deselecting has already begun – and they’re calling it a chicken run again. It will certainly be unedifying but probably quite entertaining.

And a public health crisis

It was no pandemic – less than 200 people in Britain have died from the human variant – but the BSE crisis was a classic of the genre and now looks spookily like a preview of the Covid-19 catastrophe. It was very much a Conservative creation – first when the Thatcher government loosened regulations on animal feeds, permitting the feeding of infected brains and spinal chords to beef cattle, and subsequently when the Major government first ignored and then played down the nasty effects of BSE before being finally obliged to admit the grim connection with human CJD in 1996. The impact of the crisis rattled through the UK economy for years – over four million cattle were slaughtered and the final international bans on British beef were not lifted until 2018.

It’s not just the Tories who seem to be re-living the early nineties. Starmer’s Labour party has made a close study of the successes of his party while in opposition and hopes fervently that he can reproduce them.

  • The Nuffield books are textbooks and they’re often, obviously, out of print, so they’ll usually be stupidly expensive. Amazon has the 1992 edition for over sixty quid, for instance. But if you dig a bit you’ll usually find a second-hand copy for cheap. Here’s the same book for £16.95 on Abe Books, for instance.