Last week, I had the joy of driving into work along one of our finer motorways and listening to Andrew Lansley, the Tory health spokesman, being interviewed on the Today programme about their discovery that NHS trusts have had to call in pest control to deal with infestations of wasps, bugs and rats – amongst other things.
The joy came from hearing Ivan Lewis, the Labour health minister, laying into Lansley for the scaremongering that this ‘report’ really is. Anybody involved with site management will tell you that pest infestation is an ongoing problem and the NHS has a huge estate to manage. Even the survey is flawed, as it only covered specific call outs and therefore doesn’t include establishments that may have an ongoing contract.
Of course, the real aim of this isn't to highlight problems with the health service that the Tories want to resolve, but to build an image of an NHS awash with hospital infections or vermin. The same thing is happening with their front organisation, the Taxpayers Alliance, which is trying to impose a framework that shapes the public perception that all government spending is essentially wasteful.
The Tories have been really good at this lately, working to set the background music for the debates at the next election - drip feeding their point of view into the mix to ensure that the minds of the electorate are receptive to their arguments. This is where we need to challenge them. Historically, we've been poor about putting our achievements into context - we've never been good at placing them within the context of our principles and our history or putting the right emotional spin on the facts and figures. Cameron's switched on to this - policies matter less than the emotional reaction that the party generates.
Currently, the Tories are making the political weather - I couldn't believe it when yet another year's worth of crime reductions rolled out and there was no government presence on the PM Programme that evening, leaving it open for the Tory representative to frame the story. Hell, we'll be forced to take the blame when it all goes wrong, so let's grab the credit whenever we have the chance. Our media management has to sharpen up - let's rediscover the discipline and the planning that we had in the mid-90s. Perhaps the media don't want to be managed, but the Tories are doing a very effective job, keeping a stream of stories flowing and working hard to set the agenda against us.
We certainly need more performances like Ivan's this week - challenging the Tory world view and the agenda that they are trying to set. We're currently languishing in the polls, so thinking as an opposition won't hurt.