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How 'optimism' might start to wear thin for Labour

Amid lacklustre support and waning poll leads, the scale of the challenge for Ed Miliband is clear.

In his New Year message, released today, Ed Miliband says that his party's mission in 2012 is "to show politics can make a difference. To demonstrate that optimism can defeat despair."

Optimism might be exactly what the Labour Party needs, given the scale of the challenge they face. The Times (£) today reports that the party's much-vaunted "registered supporters" scheme has got off to a slow start. The plan, aimed at widening Labour's support base, allows people to indicate support for the party without parting with any money. Announced with great fanfare at the Labour conference in September, Miliband and Peter Hain said they were aiming for 50,000 registered supporters. So far there are only 500.

Hain has downplayed the slow start, saying that they have until the next party conference in September to achieve the target. But it is dispiriting news, particularly coming off the back of a Guardian/ICM poll earlier this week which found -- yet again -- that Labour is struggling to convince voters to trust them on the economy. Forty-four per cent of respondents rated David Cameron and George Osborne as better placed to "manage the economy properly", compared with just 23 per cent for Miliband and Ed Balls. The Tory lead has doubled since ICM's October poll.

This news is hardly surprising: it reiterates the findings of more or less every poll since the election. As my colleague Rafael Behr reports in this week's New Statesman, this stasis is taking its toll on morale:

The mood among opposition MPs hovers between frustration and despair. The economy is stagnant, unemployment is rising, living standards are falling and the government's plans are a palimpsest of rewritten targets and faulty forecasts. Yet Ed Miliband still fails to land blows on the Prime Minister or persuade voters that he would do the job better. The Labour leader's defence is that the defeat of 2010 is still too recent, making it unreasonable to expect a sudden renaissance. The plan so far has been to describe what is wrong with British capitalism (it is unfair) and then assemble an alternative vision (a work in progress), ready for the moment when the voters are ready to listen.

'Establishing economic credibility' has long been the vague aim, but how exactly can this be achieved? One set of suggestions has been published today, coinciding with Miliband's New Year message.

In a pamphlet for the Policy Network think tank, the shadow pensions minister, Gregg McClymont, and the Oxford historian, Ben Jackson, argue that Labour must avoid falling into the "tax and spend" trap:

Labour can sidestep the electoral trap being sprung by the Conservatives by refusing to be driven back to its core support. A patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards, not a simple defence of the public sector and public spending, is crucial to foiling Conservative attempts to render Labour the party of a sectional minority.

Drawing on the 1930s and 1980s, both decades in which the Tories won elections despite severe economic hardship, the pamphlet argues that these successes depended on painting Labour as "profligate" and "incompetent", and being able to deliver just enough prosperity to retain support.

Writing in the Guardian, the report's authors endorse Miliband's emphasis on the "squeezed middle" and the need for a new growth model as "the right political judgement".

That may be, but "optimism" inside Labour will be running out if this judgement does not start to translate into a tangible measure of success -- increased support and stronger poll leads. The pressure is on for 2012.