Mr Brown at your service

The polls are not good for Labour. The latest advice to the Prime Minister is to show that he identi

Gordon Brown and his fractious team of advisers finally think they understand the reasons behind the government's deepening unpopularity. The trouble is, they have little clue what to do about it.

In one sense, if the first step towards solving a problem is identifying that you have one, then the gradual realisation that Labour has lost the affections of that fickle couple - Essex Man and his other half, Worcester Woman (repackaged for the Noughties as GMTV Family) - is a start.

In cabinet at the end of last month, Brown's new fixer, Stephen Carter, sought to justify his existence in the face of grumblings from the old guard about his market-speak with a presentation in which he suggested the government's mantra from now on should be "On Your Side" or "At Your Service". Explaining that the "coping classes" who have done well under Labour but are starting to feel the pinch in the economic downturn are at risk of being lost, he ordered cabinet ministers to go forth and think of ways to woo them back.

Now, during the much-delayed Easter holiday, it still sounds like a tall order.

Even if Carter's analysis is correct - and the opinion polls suggest it is - it will take more than two weeks kicking back in the constituency and a lot of head-scratching to come up with a solution to the government's problems.

As recently as the Labour spring conference, the team around the Prime Minister was still arguing that the answer to three months of poor polls was a Dad's Army cry of "Don't panic". The big message from conference was that there was no big message - the public needed Brown to bed in, to allow recent policies to take effect and for their new Prime Minister to gain in stature and statesmanship as they learned to appreciate his serious qualities following that Flash Harry, Tony Blair.

Even the much-delayed endgame of the nationalisation of Northern Rock, and its attendant gloom of economic uncertainty, did not seem to shake the belief that the polls would come right, the public would come round.

The clearest evidence of this thinking was apparent during Alistair Darling's Budget speech, when he used more than a dozen formulations of the words "global financial problems" and "international economic uncertainty" to distance himself and the government from any pinch the electorate might begin to feel in their pockets. With the opinion polls stubbornly continuing their trajectory south, that analysis was already looking flawed when Carter made his presentation.

Following a Times poll on 8 April putting Labour six points behind the Tories and a mutiny over the 10p tax rate, everyone at the top table understands that the government needs to do far more to reach out to C1s and C2s in the key swing seats in the south-east, particularly the voter-rich counties of Essex and Kent, which have delivered it three terms in office.

Hidden landmines

The trouble is that it has left it late, and sleepwalked its way into storing up a whole new set of problems - hidden landmines that could detonate at any time.

One senior figure at No 10, struggling to come up with any tangible "On Your Side" action he could take ahead of the local elections, suggested to me that perhaps Labour MPs could go out and make the arguments more loudly to sell the government to a frustrated electorate.

Not exactly the strongest of strategies even if the party was singing from the same song-sheet, but almost impossible when, as the recent "sulphurous" meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party proved, things are far from rosy on that front. As Philip Cowley, the University of Nottingham aca demic who specialises in parliamentary revolts, indicates, rebellion is habit-forming.

A few weeks ago, Brown picked a particularly unnecessary fight with the increasingly powerful Catholic lobby within the party over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. He now seems poised to walk, blindfolded and led by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, into another bust-up with the back benches over 42-day detention of terror suspects.

Already, Labour councillors campaigning ahead of next month's local elections are distancing themselves from the government's post office closure programme. When a number of ministers were caught out doing the same a few months ago, the response from No 10 was so muted it was barely audible.

Of course, Brown cannot be seen to panic, and it is perhaps understandable, given the government's current weakness, that speaking out of turn no longer seems to lead to loss of office. But both Ivan Lewis, who (rightly, perhaps) complained that the government was out of touch and Gerry Sutcliffe, who called for protests against alcohol tax rises, are lucky to remain in their jobs, and their peers must be made to see that what they did was hugely damaging to the government as a whole.

Now, more than ever, the party needs to pull together if Labour is to avoid wipeout at the local elections, as well as at a general election that is at most only two years away. The one crumb of comfort for Brown and his team as they scratch around for ways to deliver that "On Your Side" message is that the Tories don't seem to have worked out what Carter's phrase means either.

David Cameron continues to be concerned that, while his party's lead in the polls is beginning to look consistent, he is still far off the ratings enjoyed by Tony Blair at a similar stage in the electoral cycle ahead of the 1997 election. And, given Britain's complicated voting arithmetic, perhaps the Tories even lack the numbers needed to secure an overall majority.

Test of public trust

The people on low incomes who phoned a radio call-in show this past week to complain of being whacked by the scrapping of the 10p tax rate all said they would never vote Labour again. Very few were considering voting Conservative, however.

If GMTV Family has fallen out of love with Labour, it is still not convinced by the Tories. Cameron, as much as Brown, lacks that common touch, that connection to the lower middle classes that both Margaret Thatcher and Blair displayed.

In some ways the international economic problems could almost have been a boon to the government, with Brown and Darling easily beating Cameron and George Osborne in the "men-versus-boys" test of whom the public trusts to provide calm reassurance, competence and credibility in the face of an economic crisis.

Yet the government risks throwing that trump card away through a failure to truly understand what it means to be "on your side". To win, both Labour and the Tories need to work out ways to speak to people worried about the rising cost of everyday items. They must do more than sympathise with families that are concerned about negative equity, or young people who cannot get on the housing ladder and now despair of securing a mortgage.

On tax, the government cannot continue to give the impression of robbing the poor to pay the better-off and must offer a far better justification for tax changes that will hurt 5.3 million of the least well-off. Sympathy and a light touch must be shown on a range of issues, from alcohol and fuel taxes to post office closures.

And, just as the Tories learned a harsh lesson from their grammar school debacle, Labour will have to take on board the message that divided parties never prosper. It will be interesting to see whether the Easter holiday head-scratching over "On Your Side" delivers up anything more.

Rosa Prince is political correspondent for the Daily Telegraph

Martin Bright is away

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back