Can Brown pull off an unexpected victory tonight?

The Labour leader’s got to get personal and emotional, not numerical and statistical.

Polly Toynbee, over at CiF, thinks tonight's going to be "Gordon Brown's car-crash TV moment". I'm torn over whether I agree.

I admit it doesn't look good for Gordo, as even Labour strategists and cabinet ministers admitted to James and me, in our column for the magazine this week. And it's difficult to disagree with Neil Kinnock's description of our premier as having a "face for radio".

But, having said that, I do think Brown has the opportunity to carve out a niche for himself as the safe pair of hands. One of his close allies tells me he's confident that the public might warm to "solid, reliable Gordon", as opposed to the "illusionist" and "charmer" Cameron.

And one of the papers this morning refers to Tory fears that Brown may succeed in coming across as a "father of the nation" figure. Indeed, he might. Given that he's facing TweedleCam and TweedleClegg, the two near-identical, posh, young brothers, Brown might get brownie points just for turning up and looking and sounding different. Remember: as most of the polls showed during the "bullying" row, the public don't hate or dislike Brown as much as residents of the Westminster political-media bubble do.

The Brown ally also reminds me that his man has been answering questions in the Commons for the past 13 years -- three as Prime Minister, ten as chancellor (a period during which he outlasted six Tory shadows at the despatch box). Cameron, on the other hand, has never had to answer questions in parliament and has been given more or less a free pass by our Tory-dominated press.

And we know he doesn't like answering questions. Ask Sky's Joey Jones. Or Jeremy Paxman -- the man he's been running away from this week. (Oh, Jonathan Freedland also has a couple of questions he wants Alastair Stewart to put to the Conservative leader. And as it's a "home affairs" debate, I'd ask Cameron how many houses he owns.)

So what's the big danger for Brown? If he reverts to robot mode, he's toast. He can't afford to be the over-serious, dour, professorial, number-crunching statistician that he often becomes in TV interviews and press conferences.

Look what happened to Al Gore in 2000. Despite being the more experienced, more intelligent and more qualified of the two candidates, it was George W Bush, the multimillionaire Republican candidate and ex-oilman, the son of a former president, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who won over voters by shamelessly but successfully playing the "man of the people" card during that controversial campaign -- especially in the presidential debates.

Tonight, "Dave" Cameron, of Old Etonian/Bullingdon Club fame, will be trying to play the same card. God help us.

I only hope that Brown's people have been reading Drew Westen's The Political Brain. Here is Westen's take:

If you start with false premises about how the mind of the voter works, you can reason your way to a concession speech. You can watch precisely how Michael Dukakis and Al Gore did that here. They listed all their best facts and figures, their positions and policy statements, their 17-point plans for every issue. Their goal was to convince voters that they had the most to offer -- in the language of economics, that they offered the greatest marginal utility. Perhaps they would have won if everyone were Alan Greenspan (although even Greenspan got emotional about irrational exuberance).

When asked about his Medicare plan in the first presidential debate against George Bush in 2000, Al Gore responded, "Under the governor's plan, if you kept the same fee for service that you have now under Medicare, your premiums would go up by between 18 per cent and 47 per cent, and that is the study of the Congressional plan that he's modelled his proposal on by the Medicare actuaries."

Voters didn't need to know exact percentages. Most didn't know what an actuary was, and if they did, they probably wouldn't like one. All Gore needed to say, with the appropriate intonation to make the point hit home (and home is where the heart is), was, "Under the governor's plan, your rates will go up by about a third. That's a lot of money, especially if you're on a fixed income. That's not how we should be treating our parents and grandparents. That's not why I call 'family values.' "

Nor did either the Gore or Kerry campaigns effectively take on the character attacks launched at them by the Bush campaign. Like Dukakis, who was talking about jobs while being beaten to death by Willie Horton, they didn't seem to recognise that when the other side is telling a story about you that people are starting to believe, you'd better drop everything and offer a compelling counter-narrative -- and preferably a compelling story about the storyteller. That two Democrats let George W Bush make character an issue about them without ever turning his history of impulsivity, recklessness, drunkenness, investigation for insider trading, and draft evasion while cheerleading for the Vietnam war (not to mention his cheerleading at Yale -- not exactly a great visual image for a presidential nominee) into a voting issue speaks volumes about the way our party's leading strategists tend to understand the mind of the voter.

That's Westen's shrewd counsel.

My own humble advice to the Prime Minister tonight: break one of the 76 rules. Do something spontaneous. Emote. Turn and face Cameron. Take a risk. The audience might like you for it. And you've got very little to lose.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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