These days I tend to find out news as much through interview bids as through listening to the radio or reading the papers. Sky or Radio Five Live are usually first, by email, with a phone call ten minutes later if I haven’t replied, then a rash of BBC producers, followed by a broadsheet asking for a considered piece.
Where we are in Scotland, reception comes and goes, so yesterday they were pinging in in batches as we moved around, asking for reaction, first, to the Damian McBride emails, then the McBride row and finally the McBride resignation.
Media people tend to assume knowledge of others, as though everyone spends their time listening to their programmes, so the resignation was reached without me knowing what the row was about, other than that it concerned allegations of a smear campaign. It was only this morning, thinking I could not really do a whole blog on how we went swimming in a freezing river yesterday, that I thought I should mug up a bit.
It is not through any attempt at distancing, merely a statement of fact, to say that I barely know Mr McBride. I was vaguely aware of him being around the Treasury when I was in Number 10, and vaguely aware that he was closer to the Charlie Whelan school of strategic communications than my own. (I’m aware we tend to get lumped together in some sections, but I know the differences, even if they don’t.)
In more recent times, I have been in meetings where Mr McBride has beeen present, but never heard him speak. I have heard his colleagues both defend him vigorously, and attack him equally forecefully.
But on reading the emails he sent, I was struck not just by their unpleasantness, but also by their incompetence and, most of all, how much they miss the point about where we are politically.
The Tories are at their most vulnerable on policy. As I have been saying for some time, it is in this area that there has to be sustained, co-ordinated and vigorous attack, ensuring the public are aware of the incoherence and inconsistencies in the positions of those who would claim to be the next government of the UK. David Cameron and George Osborne are unfit to govern not because of any old photos, real or imagined, or visits to clinics, but because they don’t know what they want to do with power, and are simply hoping Labour hand it over on a plate. They are never happier than when talking about process and personality, as a means of avoiding policy and principle, so McBride has played right into their hands, even if Iain Dale is going over the top in trying to say it makes GB look like Nixon.
In the modern age, with freedom of information, inquiries galore, a restive civil service looking over its shoulder, a media prepared to print first and ask questions later, you may as well assume that anything you write down will be made public at some point. McBride will be thinking that was his big mistake – writing it all down. His really big mistake was thinking it might be effective.
What the fall-out must not do is make Labour defensive about trying to do a better job of communicating via the web. A more open and engaged politics is essential if Labour are to have a chance of winning a fourth term. This episode is a bad example of the old politics, much more than a botched example of the new. Whatever the hoo-ha in the media, that is how Labour should see it and the politicians need to start using the web and its opportunities properly, rather than saying this shows what happens if you try.
Secondly, for Labour to win a fourth term, there has to be a sense of new politics to match a very different era to the one in which we were first elected. Part of that is about the think we all know the differences.