OPINION: Fewer policy stories is the right strategy

The mood in Birmingham for Labour's spring conference last weekend was certainly different from when the comrades met in Bournemouth last autumn.

Charlie Whelan
Charlie Whelan

Then talk was of an early election - now it was the long slog to the polls in two years' time. 

As part of this new mood the Prime Minister changed the habit of a lifetime and made a speech without one single new policy announcement - not even a 're-announcement'.

I have lost count of the number of times journalists have criticised Gordon Brown over his perceived obsession with making new announcements so I expected a chorus of cheers from the fourth estate. But there was not a bit of it.

As I sat eating my Brummie balti, on the next table no less than four BBC political correspondents moaned to me about the leader's speech. 'How on earth can I do my Today programme "two-way" with no story?' one bitterly complained. The rest of the press corps was equally critical.

The next day The Observer didn't even report the speech. But it did give plenty of coverage to the latest Tory scam, which involves miraculously building 5,000 prisons without paying for them.

So was Gordon Brown right to sacrifice a few headlines for a substantial speech? The answer has to be a resounding yes.

I remember on my first day working for the then shadow chancellor, when I decided to ban all press releases from his office. The sheer number had completely devalued them. There is nothing wrong in limiting announcements and right now Brown has a long-term election plan so more substance from him is just what Labour needs.

Had this been the leader's speech to the main conference it would have won plenty of plaudits.

So does this mean that Cameron's prisons scam was any less effective? No, not really. The Tory high command will be delighted with the coverage, although the PRO who allowed him to be photographed in a cell had clearly forgotten about Archer and Aitken, as the Daily Mirror kindly pointed out.

The fact is the opposition has to keep stories running, if only to half-match the government machine. The Tories' problem right now is that there is little in the way of substance emerging from the high command. This has not gone unnoticed in Downing Street.

The PM can rise above the fray and concentrate on substantial speeches. The Birmingham conference was the first indication of this new strategy as Labour slowly claws its way back in the polls.

Email: charlie.whelan@haymarket.com  

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