So what happens next...?

Whatever the local election results, <strong>Gordon Brown</strong> faces a much bigger challenge: to

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Around the country people have begun to ask themselves a question. It is a simple question, but a fundamental one which should give rise to some serious soul-searching in Downing Street: "So what would be so awful about the Tories getting back into power?" Far beyond the Tory heartlands, this question is being voiced without shame by swathes of Middle England - voters who switched to Labour in 1997 and stayed on board because the idea of the Tories in government was laughable.

Now it can also be heard, if only sotto voce (middle class for "quietly") on the lips of voters who, at one time, needed no persuading to vote Labour. This is the group David Blunkett dubbed the "chatterati", middle-class liberals, dare I say New Statesman readers. They voted Liberal Democrat in their thousands in 2005 and disapprove of Labour's three interconnected wars: the war in Iraq, the war on terror and the war on civil liberties. I heard it just before the local elections from someone who worked at the heart of the new Labour project when it was struggling back from the wilderness in the 1990s. Activists will have heard it on the doorsteps in the run-up to 1 May as they engaged in the desperate task of getting the vote out. Tory high command is already daring to dream of defections, so perhaps a few disgruntled Labour MPs are even beginning to voice the question privately themselves.

Then there is a second question, which Labour MPs are regularly being asked by core working-class voters: "Why has the Labour Party abandoned us?" There is a growing feeling that the party's present troubles not only deter floating voters, to put it simply, but are eating deep into the core. "I think we're at the tipping point," said one backbencher who had been out knocking on doors all week. "Traditional associations with the party are breaking down. People are saying no one speaks for us, it's not Labour any more, it's not our party any more." This is all the more unsettling because ministers can quite rightly point to a host of measures (the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start) that have made a tangible difference to the lives of people on lower incomes.

Two big questions

Gordon Brown must answer both these questions if he is to have a chance of returning to Downing Street after the next election. First, however, he must recognise that the two are umbilically linked. If the government could put a coherent case together about why David Cameron would be a genuinely anti-progressive force in No 10, it would begin to win back the core vote and the liberal waverers, too (though this will be more difficult). However, for the past month Labour has been unable to get to grips with either the growing cre dibility of the opposition or the seeping away of its core support because it has been distracted. A series of economic crises, the 10p tax rebellion and the looming local and London mayoral elections have had the effect of locking down the political process.

One former cabinet minister told me that it was quite literally impossible to say where Labour should go from here until the results of the 1 May elections were out of the way. Meanwhile, the Labour Party finds itself in the extraordinary position where, as the survey from the experts at PoliticsHome on page 13 demonstrates, there was no outcome of the local elections within the realms of possibility that would be a cause for celebration. At the same time, senior party figures are asking how the party got itself into the situation where a win for its mayoral candidate would be only marginally less disastrous for Labour than a win for the Tories. A third term for a bruised, battered and still unaccountable Ken Livingstone was never relished by a beleaguered Brown government.

The row over 42-day detention without charge for terror suspects is intensifying and there is no sign of a let-up. By pushing back the vote to give them more time to defuse the back-bench rebellion and distance the vote from the local elections, ministers have merely delayed the agony. The deadlock is likely to carry on through May and well into June with no obvious compromise solution in sight. The row is emblematic of the bind in which Brown finds himself. No one, it seems, except the Prime Minister and a handful of senior police officers, has been persuaded of the need to increase the amount of time someone can be kept interned from a month to an equally arbitrary longer period. Such a shameless attempt to outflank the Tories on the right could only ever be justified if it paid electoral dividends. But what is the point of forcing the Tories to the left if they successfully persuade the electorate that the Conservative Party, rather than the Labour government, is the true defender of Britain's ancient liberties? The shadow home secretary, David Davis, is winning the intellectual argument, just as he did when Tony Blair tried to bring in a 90-day detention period.

Draw the sting

With the battle of principles lost, Brown and his once-feted Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, are wasting their time scrabbling around for compromises. The fight is no longer worth the candle. Brown has calculated that even if he loses the vote he can make political capital by blaming it on the Tories and their careless regard for the security of the country. This might have been true if he was still riding high in the polls. But if he really wants to draw the sting, he should abandon the plans, take the subsequent criticism on the chin and move on.

The Tories are itching for a fight because it makes them look humane. David Cameron has never been entirely convinced by Davis's strategy in opposing anti-terror legislation, but he will love it if the Tories can combine a Commons humiliation of the government with another chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti.

As it happens, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, used local election week to give a chilling indication of how different a Tory government would be for British workers. Following his speech to the British Chambers of Commerce on 28 April, he said: "I think the public service unions have grown too powerful. We would also look at any changes that need to be made in employment legislation. We are still in the process of looking at what the changes might be."

Those Labour voters who have been persuaded in recent months by the Conservative Party parading itself as the champion of the poor and the dispossessed should read Osborne's words and weep.

Irritated though it might be by the "Spring of Discontent", the government must avoid the temptation to match Tory threats to curb workers' rights in a last-ditch attempt to appeal to Middle England. Such forbearance might even win back some of those core voters who believe the party has abandoned them.

Local Elections: Your instant guide to how party bosses feel

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This article appears in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery

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