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It's not all over, yet

The Conservatives are ahead in the polls yet their isolationist policies could still be their undoin

I had a curious experience the other day. A little tentatively I started to write a column on why, in my view, it was too early to predict the outcome of the next election. In a spirit of fairness, I spent half the column citing an army of brilliant people, from opinion pollsters to cabinet ministers, who had concluded that David Cameron was on course for certain victory, and probably on a big scale. I then spent the other half explaining why I had my doubts about whether they were right.

This is when I had the curious experience. I started to believe what I was writing, always rare for political columnists, but especially when challenging near-universal orthodoxy.

I will summarise my reasons. Although Cameron is, in many ways, a hugely successful leader of the opposition, he has not acquired his own distinctive and authentic voice. He is so "Blair-like" in style and in his political strategy that I can see the joins, yet, as a public figure, Cameron is not wholly convincing. Second, the Conservatives' response to the economic crisis leaves them railing against the prevailing zeitgeist rather than reflecting and shaping it as Margaret Thatcher did in 1979. Third, the economic crisis has many more rounds to go and remains wildly unpredictable. Fourth, Gordon Brown has been written off so many times since 1994 yet he is still standing, more or less. His resilience and erratic cunning can be easily underestimated.

Those are the main reasons why, in my view, the outcome of the election is not yet decided. There is, however, another side of the equation. Are Brown and his weary government up to the huge task of turning around a political outlook so bleak that senior Labour strategists are already planning for the leadership contest after their party's inevitable general election defeat? So far there is little evidence to suggest that they are.

Since Brown became Prime Minister, in June 2007, the familiar political cycles have been comically out of joint. In the late summer and early autumn of 2007 there was a frenzied sense of a looming political battle, with Brown and his entourage moving into pre-election mode. In the event, there was no election.

Now, there is a reverse sequence. In a relatively short period of time there will be a general election; there is no getting away from it. Yet there is no sense at all of a looming contest. Instead, some senior Labour figures look beyond what many assume will be a doomed campaign to what will follow the defeat. So it is as if there has been an election campaign without an election and preparations for the aftermath of a defeat before an official campaign has taken place.

There are other curious mismatches. New Labour has always erupted with populist slogans when it was far ahead in the polls and, therefore, had no great need for them. Now it is well behind I can think of few accessible phrases that explain what it is trying to do in an economic crisis so multilayered in its complexity.

When, as chancellor, Gordon Brown declared an end to "boom and bust", Labour was so much more popular than the Tories that he could have delivered an eight-hour lecture on tractor production and everyone would have cheered. He had no need to tempt fate on "boom and bust" when he knew better than anyone else that, in a global economy, no country could insulate itself entirely from what was happening elsewhere in the world.

Similarly, Brown declared his support for British jobs for British workers when he was on a prime ministerial honeymoon at Labour's conference in 2007, so popular he was running the unofficial election campaign that ended without an election. Once again there was no need to play such a crudely populist card so at odds with his broader message about markets, flexible labour and the rest. Now those slogans are coming back to torment him, the equivalent of sinister characters in a film noir who return to destroy those with whom they have enjoyed, apparently, a once-fruitful relationship.

Do voters realise that the choice at the next election is between two distinct responses to an economic crisis?

There are good campaigning techniques and there are dangerous ones. Obviously slogans that tempt fate will, over time, explode in the face of their creator. Yet that is not a reason for deploying virtually no campaigning techniques at all. Here is another mismatch. In its early years in power new Labour spent too much time campaigning when it should have been governing. Now that it needs to focus on a forthcoming election, it does nothing but govern.

One of Tony Blair's former advisers, Matthew Taylor, has suggested that the only way Labour has a chance of recovering, and a faint chance at that, is to state openly that it will forget about the electoral battle and focus solely on the economy. Taylor proposes a clever conceit: by declaring that he will not engage in the usual pre-election political point-scoring, Brown will win political points. The flaw in the thesis is that this is more or less what the Prime Minister and his government are doing. There is no great playing up of a choice between two very distinct positions.

There is a marked contrast with the Conservatives in the build-up to their fourth successive election victory in 1992. By this equivalent stage, John Major had appointed Chris Patten to be his party chairman. Patten began to plan and plot around the clock, appearing on every available broadcasting outlet to counter any sentence uttered by the then Labour leader, Neil Kinnock. Patten was assisted by his director of communications, Shaun Woodward, who is well placed to advise Brown on how the Conservatives won in 1992, as he sits in the cabinet as Northern Ireland Secretary.

Brown and his allies are of course not entirely oblivious that there will soon be an election. Strategic meetings are taking place behind the scenes. Brown's close ally Ed Balls chairs a weekly meeting attended by several experienced warriors from past bloody battles. One of the warriors said to me recently: "I look around the room and think to myself, 'I'd hate to take this lot on. There are a lot of hard nuts in this room.'"

Brown occasionally chairs a separate strategic meeting, but he is focused almost exclusively on the economic crisis. In spite of such gatherings, and the hard nuts, there is little so far for the Conservatives to worry about.

Yet, of all the reasons why the election is not yet sealed, it is the recent decisions taken by the Conservative leadership that give the government most ammunition. The Tories' unilateralist opposition to a fiscal stimulus - especially when taken with their position on Europe - has echoes of Labour's programme at the 1983 election. Like Labour then, there is a Conservative assumption that Britain can go it alone in its responses to international challenges. Yet do voters realise that the choice at the next election is not between an economic crisis under the current government and a boom under the Conservatives, but one between two distinct responses to an economic crisis that will remain deep whoever is in power? I doubt that they do.

It seems that Brown's reticence has three causes. He does not want to be seen as obsessively partisan as voters lose their jobs and homes. More widely, the non-election fiasco of the autumn of 2007 has led to a stifling neurosis about any display of overt campaigning. Finally, much ministerial time is spent firefighting, chaotically, as shown by the range of contradictory ministerial voices responding to the so-called wildcat strikes of recent days.

That would be fine as an explanation if Labour were ahead in the polls. It is not. If Brown and others can start to make more sense of what they are doing and get the Conservatives on the defensive over their isolationism they might have a small chance. The next election is not over yet, but it will be very soon.

Steve Richards is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and chief political columnist for the Independent

This article appears in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009