The 2017 campaign has already seen its first car crash, courtesy of Labour MP Dawn Butler. Interviewed on BBC Radio’s 4 PM programme about Labour’s new populist platform, Butler managed to get herself down several blind alleys.
Struggling to answer Eddie Mair’s questions on policy, Butler managed to use the word ‘rigging’ so often that at times it felt like an interview with the Shadow Minister for 18th Century Piracy.
Backed into a corner she ended up wrongly accusing Costa Coffee of engaging in aggressive tax-avoidance. She was forced to apologise shortly afterwards.
Election campaigns are slick professional things, but even these can go off course. In our electoral history we’ve seen a fair few campaign car crashes and in this post we take a look at some of the biggest.
8. 1983 “LANDSLIDES ON THE WHOLE DON’T PRODUCE SUCCESSFUL GOVERNMENTS”
Foreign Secretary Francis Pym was never a big fan of Thatcher and the feeling was mutual. A leading ‘wet’ (what youngsters these days might call a ‘melt’), Thatcher thought he didn’t have the mettle to be part of her revolutionary agenda.
Making an appearance on Question Time during the 1983 campaign, Pym was asked a question about the strong prospects of a Tory landslide. Pym replied “Landslides on the whole don’t produce successful Governments”
It’s not exactly a perfect way to promote your party. It is in effect, warning voters they might end up with a rubbish Government. The opposite of what you hope to do in a campaign.
Thatcher was furious but the voters didn’t listen as she won a huge majority. Things turned out less well for Pym. The day after the election he was summoned to No.10 where Thatcher bluntly remarked, “Francis, I want a new Foreign Secretary”. Not even reshuffled to obscurity, he was sent straight to the backbenches and was never seen again.
CAR CRASH RATING – CLIPPED THE WING MIRROR OFF
7. 1987 – REPEL SOVIET INVASION BY “USING THE RESOURCES YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE ANY OCCUPATION TOTALLY UNTENABLE”
Though trailing the Tories in the polls, Neil Kinnock’s Labour did a lot in the 1987 campaign to rebuild the Party and put himself forward as a credible leader.
Labour, with its then policy of unilateral disarmament, remained weak on the issue of Defence in Cold War Britain. Kinnock wasn’t much help on this front.
When pushed by interviewer David Frost on how a Labour Government would respond to a Soviet invasion, Kinnock responded it would by ‘using all the resources you’ve got to make any occupation untenable’. Labour’s policy on potential national catastrophe was apparently a scorched earth policy.
The Conservatives’ were delighted and mercilessly used the gaffe against Labour, famously in its “Labour’s policy on arms” poster.
Labour ended up making only modest gains in the election, with a minor increase in the vote. Exit polls showed that voters’ concerns about Labour’s Defence policy were high amongst their reasons for sticking with the Conservatives.
CAR CRASH RATING – PRANGED THE BUMPER
6. 2015 – “AS YOU CAN PROBABLY HEAR I’VE GOT A HUGE COLD.”
Hoping to ride the anti-establishment wave that was propelling parties like the SNP and UKIP, the Greens entered the 2015 campaign with high hopes of a breakthrough.
In one of the greatest mysteries of the 21st Century, the Party sent in Natalie Bennett to bat. A decision more bizarre given they already had a high-profile and effective communicator in Caroline Lucas, who was also conveniently an actual MP. Bennett didn’t take to the stump well, and spent the whole campaign looking about as comfortable as Nigel Farage in an ethnically-diverse London borough.
The discomfort peaked in this painful interview on LBC. Interviewer Nick Ferrari pulled no punches, asking tough questions like “How are you going to pay for all this?”. Bennett tried to answer with various words, but with no real success in putting them in a particular order. She then tried to depend on the old ‘my mum has written me a note” excuse by saying “As you can probably hear I’ve got a huge cold”. Rousing stuff.
Though they held Lucas’s seat of Brighton Pavillion, the Greens made no further gains and saw only a modest increase in their vote share.
CAR CRASH RATING – SAY GOODBYE TO THE NO CLAIMS BONUS
5. 2005 – “ARE YOU THINKING WHAT WE’RE THINKING?”
Michael Howard’s Conservatives ran a fairly poor campaign in 2005. Masterminded by a then little-known Australian, Lynton Crosby, the campaign focussed on a slightly sinister theme of “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?“. Not so much a nod and a wink but rather an elbow to the ribs.
This poster was the apex of this campaign – it is the poster equivalent of “I’m not racist but…”. If Zac Goldsmith’s campaign was dogwhistle politics, this was bloody surround sound.
The poster was made doubly bad by one copy appearing outside a sixth-form college in highly diverse Islington. It wasn’t long before somebody painted over the ‘Not’.
The Tories stuttered in the election, increasing their vote share by a miserly 0.7%. Howard would resign shortly afterward and on came the beginning of David Cameron’s modernisation project. He had a lot of work to do.
CAR CRASH RATING – THAT’S A WRITE OFF
4. 2001 – OLIVER LETWIN PROMISES £20 BILLION HE DOESN’T HAVE
Entering into the 2001 campaign, William Hague’s Conservatives hoped to restore their reputation for competence and recover some of their losses following the disastrous result in 1997.
The Tories attempted to put forward a platform of costed tax cuts, a campaign part-spearheaded by Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Oliver Letwin. Letwin managed to tell the Financial Times the Tories were offering £20bn in tax cuts, two and a half times the £8bn they had actually committed to.
Press furore followed with Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo having to categorically deny his claim. Letwin himself was barely seen for the rest of the campaign as the Party forced him into hiding.
The Tories made particularly unimpressive progress, making a net gain of one in the election. Letwin himself continued a career in frontline politics, commensurate with several gaffes such as, amongst others, claiming he would rather beg on the street than send his children to the local state school, being photographed dumping official cabinet papers in litter bins in St James’s Park and letting in two strangers into his house at 5am in the morning who then promptly robbed him.
CAR CRASH RATING – OFF THE ROAD INTO A DITCH
3. 2015 – THE ‘EDSTONE’
With the polls showing a neck-and-neck race, Ed Miliband’s Labour were desperate for anything to put some clear water between them and the Tories.
Taking their successful 1997 pledge card to the max, Labour commissioned the carving of they key promises into an eight and a half foot tall stone tablet at the cost of roughly £7,000. Dramatically unveiled in a Hastings carpark, Miliband also pledged to put the stone in the Downing Street Rose Garden.
The stone immediately prompted huge derision as gimmicky and downright bizarre. Some Labour figures, so horrified at the stunt, reportedly broke into outright screaming at the television. The stone was also further undermined, if such a thing was possible, by Labour campaign chief, Lucy Powell, who claimed, “I don’t think anyone is suggesting that the fact that he’s carved them in stone means he’s absolutely not going to break them or anything like that”. Ain’t that the point of it Lucy?
Labour ended up going backwards in the election, having their worst performance since 1987. The EdStone had a worse future ahead. As elusive as a 2001 Oliver Letwin, nobody was ever sure of its eventual whereabouts and it was reportedly destroyed in an undisclosed location.
CAR CRASH RATING – FLIPPED IT
2. 2010 – “SHE’S JUST A SORT OF BIGOTED WOMAN”
Trying to win their fourth successive election, Labour came under fire for its perceived weakness on the economy and immigration.
The latter was bitterly exposed in a random encounter in Rotherham between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and lifelong Labour voter Gillian Duffy. The conversation was already going pretty badly, with Brown struggling as ever to appear like a normal human being. The conversation went over a lot of topics, and eventually went on to Labour’s kryptonite of immigration. It is fair to say Duffy had ‘robust’ views on the subject.
It seemed though it was no worse than a Thick of it-style, ‘minister looks a tit’ moment. Unfortunately, for Brown though his microphone was left on and after getting in his car was recorded referring to Duffy as a ‘bigoted sort of woman’.
Brown then had to endure the humiliation of listening to it live during a radio interview with Jeremy Vine. This gaffe had by then got so bad that it went past disastrous and almost looped back round to people beginning to feel sorry for him.
Labour had a bad day at the polls losing 91 seats and its vote share was the worst performance by the main governing party since 1918. In fairness to Brown though, he was toast, buttered and duly eaten by the electorate long before this howler.
CAR CRASH RATING – GONNA HAVE TO CALL THE FIRE BRIGADE IN FOR THIS ONE.
1. 1992 – SHEFFIELD RALLY
In 1992 Labour were buoyant. Polls put them in with a real chance of a dramatic comeback from 1987 and becoming the largest party.
Kinnock had spent his leadership trying to modernise the party and turn it into a professional campaigning machine like the Tories had become. This reached a climax with an American-style rally in the Sheffield Arena.
Costing around £100,000, the rally was as misjudged as a sweet potato chocolate mousse. It was seen as triumphalist and confirmed some of the electorate worst misgivings about Kinnock.
The rally was toe-curling from start to finish. John Smith and Roy Hattersley served as warm-up acts for Kinnock. Roy Hattersley? Was everyone else ill? It is remarkable that someone was actually paid money for Smith’s line about the Tory economy, of which any vestige of humour was obliterated by his terrible delivery.
Kinnock opened up his speech by belting out “Well alright!” over and over again like a man possessed. His following speech was actually ok, but was unfortunately overshadowed by ompletely unnecessarily stunts like flying in by helicopter.
The Sheffield Rally was so poorly received that some, including Kinnock, believed that it played a part in the Tories’ eventual shock win. The polls were probably wrong all along, but nevertheless, the rally remains a telling lesson about the perils of overconfidence.
CAR CRASH RATING – JACKKNIFED LORRY ON THE M4 CAUSING A SEVERAL CAR PILE UP.
NEAR MISS – 2001- JOHN ‘TWO JABS’ PRESCOTT
At a campaign event in Rhyl, North Wales, after being egged by a Countryside Alliance protestor, Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, following up with a left hand to the face.
The protestor was lucky he went with his left. If he had a right from the 16-stone, former amateur boxer Prescott, he probably would have suffered serious injury.
As it happened though, Prescott avoided charges from the CPS and probably actually enjoyed sympathy from the public.
We’ve had a good look at the contest between Labour and the Conservatives, so next time we’ll take a look at the Liberal Democrats and the prospects for their resurgence.