Tories now the favourites

Fabian Society general secretary Sunder Katwala argues Gordon Brown and his cabinet need set out a d

At least Labour has got the first thing right – not trying to talk up the result. The mood in the Labour Party has been very choppy after the 10p tax row. These results should persuade MPs that they can not afford the indulgence of a headless chicken tailspin.

Everybody knows there will be no change of leadership. Nobody serious wants to reopen the question, and the party’s big hitters will make that clear. The political challenge which Labour faces arises from the accumulated grievances of having been in power for eleven years, exacerbated by an economic downturn. None of that would change with a different personality in charge.

Labour must show it is not fatigued by power, but that its ambition remains rooted in public service. An instinct for self-preservation is not enough unless the party can also get across that it sees the country through the voters’ eyes. The party should get out of the Whitehall mindset of defending past achievements, to think like an opposition party in describing Britain as we see it and what we want to change.

How?

1. Brown’s USP is that he is the Prime Minister best placed to lead Britain through difficult economic conditions. That needs to underpin the fleshing out of the ‘change’ agenda he ran on.

2. We need to hear much more from the Cabinet. Not just ‘getting on with the job’ – but being political too, setting out the ‘why’ of a distinctively Labour agenda so there is a clear political choice.

3. The party needs to break out of discussing the false choice about whether to now appeal to super-marginal swing voters or to disaffected ex-Labour voters. Both arguments are half-right.

It would help if the starting point of the various Westminster post-election debates (being held by Compass, the Fabians, Progress and others), whatever the differences of emphasis, is that everybody knows we can only reunite the coalition of voters we need if we do both.

The Southampton result highlights the need to make Labour’s case to the South. (John Denham, who revisited Southern Discomfort last year will set out an argument for how to do that next Thursday. At the same time, there is also a heartland vote needed to get past the line in every marginal seat.

The election will be in 2010. The Conservatives will be the favourites and Labour the underdogs. Labour must use that to construct the central political choice. Right now, fairly or not, too many voters say they would struggle to spot the difference.

Conservative morale is high. But their success is not yet based on more than being ‘not Labour'. What is David Cameron’s case for the Conservatives?

But it is also true that the Labour case is not yet clear enough to put the core question to progressive (if sometimes disillusioned Britan). When it comes to the choice, do you have a stake in a Labour, not Tory, government or not?