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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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.