At the risk of fisking Steve Richards’ article, Richards is generous in his description of the Brown government’s achievements and underplays the influence of the economy on public opinion. Nonetheless, it is recommended reading as it highlights that the media and electorate are preoccupied by personality and that the portrayal of Cameron as substantive and progressive is maddeningly deceptive. Richards warns that the problem for the Brown government is that despite some heartening policies, “Policies are easily lost if they do not fuel the prevailing narrative”.
Tony Blair had a genius for making the incremental seem exciting. Between 1994 and 1999, if Blair had announced he was going for a short walk around the garden of No 10, the world would have hailed a revolution in transport policy. So, imagine the excitement if Blair had declared in 1997 that a Labour government would take over greedy train operators, high earners would pay more tax, the free market in energy was over and that we must all plan to pay for care for the elderly, with the well-off paying more.
The present government has announced policies along these lines in recent months and quite a few more, too. Yet it is loathed by voters from left and right. It has no support in the media and is accused of lacking purpose. [...]
The disparity is striking. When Blair was cautiously dumping the referendums on electoral reform and the euro, ruling out any tax rises, keeping to the previous Tory government's spending plans and refusing to touch the privatised railways, he and Labour were hailed for their energetic crusade. Now, by comparison, Brown looks pale and miserable and some of his ministers hide away in a state of indifference - yet they display erratic boldness.
[... In response to increasing taxes for high earners] The papers screamed their disapproval, but polls suggest the move was by far the most popular the government had made for some time. [... The policies] announced in recent months hint at a coherent outlook that would certainly enhance the quality of most voters' lives. [… Yet] voters see only the obvious flaws. Brown is a hopeless communicator who when questioned looks irritated at best and at worst miserable. In public, he is incapable of using humour, a powerful weapon in the political artist's armoury. [...]
The comparison between the adulatory response in 1997 to a timid government and the contempt shown towards one that dares to be bolder shows the limited relevance of policy in shaping perceptions. To reinforce the point, a Conservative Party that has returned to its comfort zone of sweeping spending cuts and Euroscepticism is hailed for its modernisation and seen widely as an agent of change.