Even in the aftermath of damaging by-election defeats for the Conservatives, do not let the scale of events deflect you from smaller things.
Irrespective of what trends can be read into England’s three by-election results, a subtle and less detectable change is already going on largely unnoticed.
Last week, the main television news outlets in Sky, ITV and BBC reported that the rate of consumer price rises had dropped to 7.9% in the year up to June. According to the Office for National Statistics, prices are still rising but at a measurably slower pace than before.
So far, so unspectacular, but what was significant was the way that this small shift in the cost of living crisis was reported. It was seen as the Government under Rishi Sunak fighting the perils of global inflation, in part brought about by the war in Ukraine.
Notice the subtle positioning apportioning blame to world markets and foreign wars.
What was absent from reports last Thursday as the polls opened was the catastrophic role that previous Conservative administrations had played in hiking prices, not least Liz Truss’s demonstrably hopeless stewardship of the British economy.
I may be over-exaggerating a few bulletins, but I suspect not.
Like all storytelling, the nightly news works through controlled narratives, and having exhausted the stories of struggling households and pitiful food banks, the story has shifted to fightbacks.
What worries me most about this shift in reporting is that it will lead inevitably to the return of a debased theory, namely that the Conservative Party are best with the economy, and so the natural party of government.
The gap that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party currently hold in the polls has led to people salivating about the decimation of the Tories. It rarely happens. With over a year to go to a General Election, slowly but surely Labour’s lead will be whittled away as the narrative of “neck-and-neck” comes to define the news.
Labour had a good by-election night and yet only managed to win one seat out of three and that in the context of Conservative voters staying at home.
However much Starmer tries to calculate a centre-right portfolio by shadowing the Tories, it will not be enough, especially for the thundering daily newspapers.
I cannot envisage a day when the Daily Mail, the Telegraph or the Daily Express will abandon the Conservatives in their hour of need.
It would be an unprecedented shift in British democracy if they were to endorse a Labour landslide. And never forget these newspapers exert indirect influence too, disproportionality shaping the agenda of the BBC evening news too.
Even in decline newspapers matter and they always steel themselves for a General Election. Reports last week have reaffirmed what we already know – that young voters are more likely to take their political influence from Instagram and TikTok than from any other news source, even the more established social media platforms.
No-one can be certain where that will lead in the months and years to come but one likely scenario is that election campaigns will be more influenced by clever data – infographics, recurring visual clips and shareable slogans – than by columnists.
As for the political parties, it seems that the long-read manifesto is destined for the dustbin of history and the five-point listicles that Sunak favours will become the norm.
Short and sharp communication can be powerful, but it must be sophisticated too. I am not a fan of puerile campaigning and, whisper it, I even cringe at the way that the “Sir Kid Starver” meme has found such widespread acceptance.
I have never warmed to Starmer and find him to be a shallow opportunist who in the long term will erode still further the credibility of the Labour Party, but for all his political triangulating I do not believe he came into politics to starve children.
Starmer’s reluctance to abandon the two-child cap is not driven by policy or even morality, it is brought about by an understanding of how the media works and the punishment it metes out to Labour leaders who do not cost their manifesto.
Calling Starmer a kid-starver may have some emotional and retaliatory value in the warfare of social media, but it is unlikely to shift the electoral dial by much.
Nor do I see any lasting merit in calling the Labour Party Red Tories, it is every bit as puerile as the tribal saddos that still call the SNP Tartan Tories.
On almost every single issue – from Scottish independence, Europe, immigration and nuclear defence – the SNP are the Tories’ polar opposites. To argue against the logic of this in the pursuit of some puerile Twitter insult is to cheapen political debate.
Starmer’s caution is not about the cost of child poverty – it is a nervousness of what will unfold if he makes uncalculated promises in the run up to an election. It is a nervousness borne out of a historic fear of the press and what they have habitually done to any Labour politician with vaguely socialist leanings.
The by-election defeat in Uxbridge and South Ruislip will only deepen a sense of cautiousness within Starmer’s inner circle.
The key lesson from the result in Boris Johnson’s old seat is not hugely palatable if you are a Labour activist driven by the party’s campaigning socialist past. You are still welcome, but only to deliver leaflets.
Conservative Steve Tuckwell, a local councillor who has now been elected as the MP for the west London constituency, beat Labour’s Danny Beales, a hugely credible candidate born in the constituency and with a deep experiential background in social care.
Beales was as good as Labour could hope for, but he still fell short.
Universally, the commentators have pointed to the negative impact of ULEZ, the unpopular ultra-low emissions policy rolled out from central London by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan.
For those comfortable with Labour’s predilection for control freakery, it was an obvious flaw, and led some to believe that devolution needs to be reined in, if it risks impacting on the party’s ambition to govern.
Enter the Ming Vase theory. Back in the halcyon days of New Labour in 1997, Roy Jenkins described Tony Blair’s task in getting Labour into power as “like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”.
The Ming Vase is a metaphor now so ingrained in Labour strategy meetings that caution has displaced passionate campaigning. Starmer will nervously approach a General Election, not only by being guarded about uncosted policies, but with anything that might unsettle the precious bond that aspirational Labour politicians seem to have developed with press barons.
There is clearly a Scottish dimension to all this.
Labour have to deliver a manifesto of change which changes nothing and everything has to be aligned to the politics of the south of England, and to a lesser extent the disenchanted red-wall voters of the north.
Meanwhile, a Labour Party now suspicious of the pitfalls of devolution have entrusted Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie with the task of carrying the precious Ming vase across the trickiest surface in British politics: the Scottish electorate.
What could possibly go wrong? Cue Laurel and Hardy.