The more metaphors that are pinned to Labour’s 8ft pledge slab the more the original meaning of the limestone monolith has sunk into the bog of Baldrick ideas. The only positive that can be spun out of Ed’s stone is that it marks a rare moment of consensus across the political divide: on the right it’s the tombstone of Labour’s hope to be taken seriously and on the left it brings back memories of Kinnock’s election stunting triumphalism.
If anything Ed’s stone is a monument to PR hubris. Like Ozymandias the campaign guru stands high and mighty; in an election ‘set in stone’ engagement has been tightly managed and spontaneity sucked dry. Standing in for trust -building we’ve had the gimmick – the budget responsibility locks and policy pledge mugs- and in the place of personality we’ve had stunts. The colossal wreck, to borrow Shelley’s phrase, of Edymandias points to the frustration of an electorate craving to be taken seriously. Leaving aside the question of whether we deserve better than this (see earlier posts), do stunts ever work?
You only have to look elsewhere in the election to see the stunts that have paid off. Harman’s pink van was hounded by critics for patronising women. But in the absence of any other big initiatives to address the dwindling number of female voters it was a bold splash for which Labour is being rewarded (it currently has a four point lead over the Tories among women – yougov). A similar value can be argued for Miliband’s Trews interview which reached out to a marginalised demographic; you don’t have to agree with me, Miliband said to younger voters, but you don’t have to buy into Brand’s apathy either.
What separates a bold intervention from a failed stunt is the crucial judgement that weighs the opportunity for persuasion against the risk of ridicule. The shrewd stunts of political history have involved players that have, often out of desperation, staked their reputations in order to gain an upper hand. In an uncanny echo of Cameron’s refusal to meet Miliband for a TV head to head, William Hale Thompson, Chicago’s mayor for much of the roaring Twenties, found himself in the situation where his opponents were not prepared to debate him. Instead he took on a pair of rats in front of a packed auditorium. The uproarious event marked a comeback for a candidate who had long been written off. The gamble doesn’t always reward. What worked for Francois Holland – an attempt to appeal to disenfranchised voters through a video of him embracing ethnic minority supporters to the sound of Jay Z’s Niggas in Paris – didn’t land so well when Cameron dabbled in his own brand of hoodie hugging.
The problem with Labour’s slab is that it was all risk to no obvious gain. They’d already used the commitment gimmick to sell themselves as reformed economic stalwarts with their Manifesto’s budget responsibility lock. The slab cranks the same point up to eleventy stupid and creates an image of overblown iconicity – Exodus and 2001 via the Thick of It – that no press office can control. Labour’s strongest supporters were forced to join in with the jokes on social media – if only out of hope that laughter will drown out the Kinnockian self-admiration.
Worst of all, Labour didn’t need to do this. They have had a much better campaign than everyone expected; it is not clear why risking ridicule was at all necessary. If they’d have had the slightest flicker of imagination Labour would have pre-empted the satirical jibes. They’d have called up the stonemasons and changed their order from a monument to themselves to a tombstone for the pledges of 2010 that were not fulfilled by the Tories and the Lib Dems.