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Time to up the game and win

New Statesman guest editor Alastair Campbell is also this week's leader writer. Here he argues Labou

As Alex Ferguson says on page 20, sport can learn much from politics. Politics can equally learn from sport. There is one lesson in particular that Labour must learn very quickly: the minute you start thinking about what happens after you lose . . . you’ve lost already.

An array of MPs, from some in the cabinet down, has at various times been inserted into speculation about the future leadership – so-called dream tickets that would emerge from the nightmare of defeat. Doubtless all would publicly proclaim they are confident Labour can win, and putting their energies into ensuring that happens. But if politicians really want to dampen speculation, it is not impossible. You devise a strategy and pursue it with conviction, sufficient for the public to see real focus on the fight to keep improving Britain and keep the Tories out.

What is unforgiveable about any post-defeat positioning is that it comes at a time of maximum policy challenge posed by the global financial crisis. It is doubly unforgiveable as Labour can still recover to win. The Tories are not that far ahead. More importantly, they are not that good. What talents do they have? David Cameron who is good at pictures, William Hague who is good at jokes, Ken Clarke who is good at being blokeish and lazy. What else? Chris Grayling? Oliver Letwin? George Osborne and Andrew Lansley? Running a country?

Ministers complain that it is much harder going for a fourth term. Politics is always hard. They need to stop seeing this as a fourth-term election and start understanding that it is the first post-economic crisis election, with stakes even higher than in 1997. In some ways longevity is a bonus, and the inexperience on the Tory side is hugely to Labour’s advantage.

There is nothing like the enthusiasm for the Tories under David Cameron that there was for Labour under Tony Blair in 1996. Nor have the Tories made anything like the strategic and policy changes Labour did in the first years of Blair’s leadership. Their policies on the economy, public services and foreign affairs do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Also, for all the difficulties facing the government amid the economic churn, progressive social democracy can make Conservatism even more outmoded and irrelevant.

So Labour can win. Provided certain things happen. First, it needs to mount a proper defence of its record. End the defensiveness in the face of media and Tory negativity that has stopped ministers from setting out, and continuing to set out, with real force, the enormous changes made to Britain under Labour. Read Ipsos MORI’s Ben Page on the NHS (page 42). This government has saved it, as promised. Yet health – and education – have virtually disappeared from the political battleground. They need to be back there because both would be at risk if the Tories were returned. Young voters in particular need reminding what Britain under the Tories was like.

Second, the Tories, Lib Dems and nationalist parties are not being subjected to sustained policy attack. Ministers and special advisers say they do their speeches and put out their press releases only for the media not to cover them. If they wait for the media to do their job, or to put the Tories under scrutiny, they will wait for ever. There has to be more and better communication of a nature most in government simply are not doing. It should not have taken John Prescott to show how to campaign effectively online. The profile of younger ministers has to rise. Co-ordination needs to improve. The sense of there being a team, in it together, has to strengthen. Gordon Brown cannot carry the government alone, any more than one footballer can win a game alone.

Third, as the Prime Minister focuses on the economic agenda here and now, his colleagues need to start showing where the ideas for the future are coming from for the next manifesto. There has to be an excitement to the pre-manifesto process.

It needs youth. It needs vigour from outside the usual political sources. It needs edge to cut through.

It is clear from the response to our appeal for one-sentence proposals for the manifesto (see page 18) that the progressive side of politics continues to generate more ideas and debate while our opponents try to make politics a policy-free zone. They want it to be about style and personality, with the media, particularly relentlessly trivialising television reporters, helping them. Labour has to make it all about strength, substance, policy and character.

Labour is in a fight the likes of which it has not faced for over a decade. It will not be easy. But it can be done provided, to bastardise a phrase used by John Major, we go back to basics. Remember the things
that got Labour to power in the first place. Defend and promote the changes made since. Keep taking the fight to our enemies. Keep setting out ideas for the future.

People are keen, rightly, to learn lessons from Barack Obama. It is true he fought a brilliant, modern campaign, with his use of the internet for fundraising and motivation truly stunning. But he fought a brilliant

old-fashioned campaign, too. A clear, robust strategy. Teamwork. Organisation. Values. Hard work. Rebuttal. Attack operating at several levels. Message discipline. Creativity. Enthusing and empowering new supporters. And never even contemplating defeat. Because every second you do is a second that undermines the will to win. And once you’ve lost the will to win, your opponents are home and dry.

The Tories do not deserve to win. It is in Labour’s hands to stop them. And despite it all, it can still be done. Yes, it can.

Alastair Campbell

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit