Chris Bryant: Labour has a tough year ahead if it wants to win back disaffected voters

A Political Life

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Out of the mouths of babes. I was chatting to one of my nieces on Christmas Eve and asked her how old she was. "Three and a half," she confidently replied. "And when will you be four?" my other half asked. "On my birthday," she shot back, looking at him as if he were simple.

Three days later, another young member of the family – this time an 11-year-old boy – tripped me up. "You're a politician, aren't you?" he started. "So tell me, what's the difference between Labour and Conservative?" I burbled on for a few minutes about how Labour wanted everyone to have a decent chance in life, no matter what their background, while the Tories thought everyone should stand on their own two feet. My argument was not exactly convincing as my young relative replied, "Well, I guess I'm in the middle then, because I agree with you both."

Inevitably, it set me thinking, because if my instinctive unpremeditated definition of the difference between the parties is right, there are real dangers ahead for Labour. In our moral indignation at the impact of the Government's policies on the poor and on the public sector, we could all too easily box ourselves into being just the party of waifs and strays. In our still latent fury at the arrant hypocrisy and overweening sanctimony of the Lib Dems, we could presume to win an election on the back of disaffected Lib Dem voters swimming back to us. And out of sheer dislike of the arrogance of Cameron's born-to-rule attitude, we could fail to cast a properly critical eye over our opponents.

These would be big mistakes. At a time of economic uncertainty and severely straitened personal circumstances, Labour has to have a message for the whole of Britain, the rich assertive entrepreneur and the single mum alike, and not just a manifesto for the party faithful.

In some parts of the country, we may already have that, but by the next election we will desperately need a very clear and attractive message for those parts of the country where the private not the public sector drives the economy. In particular, that will require us to swallow some unpleasant political medicine by developing a strong Labour, expressly English argument with appeal in the South, dealing with tough issues like welfare and immigration. Consolidating the Labour heartlands will simply not be enough because, put simply, we can do nothing for the Rhondda unless we win the likes of Cannock Chase and Brighton.

As for presuming on disaffected Lib Dem voters, the danger is that the disenchanted have a notorious habit of exacting their revenge on the whole panoply of parties by not voting – and, anyway, voters churn hither and thither so much now that a mathematical equation approach bears few electoral dividends. We need to be fighting for former Tories as well.

Finally, we must not underestimate our opponents. It's pretty clear now that, having choked off economic growth, they will not reach their deficit targets. Unemployment will rise further. But there is no guarantee that will deliver us the kingdom.

My political awards for 2011

The 1914-18 Award for going over the top: Nick Clegg for his claim that his political reforms were "the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832", the date of the Great Reform Act.

Best supporting government backbencher: the unfailingly loyal Claire Perry.

The Gieves & Hawkes Sartorial Award: a close tie between Matthew Hancock and Dominic Raab for both wearing V-neck jumpers under their suits in the chamber.

The former next leader of the Conservative Party award: Jeremy Hunt, left, for his impersonation of a rabbit caught in the headlights when Hackgate was unfolding all around him.

The Osric Award for obscene flattery: Michael Gove for his eulogy to Rupert Murdoch.

The dowager countess of Grantham Award for unutterable grandness: Sir Peter Tapsell.

My predictions for 2012

At home, Cameron will seriously consider (but probably reject) ditching the Lib Dems and tabling a motion calling for an early election. There will be a government reshuffle after the elections in May, in which Ken Clarke, Vince Cable and Sir George Young will make way for as many younger women (and gays) as Cameron can possibly promote.

The turnout in the much-derided elections for Policing and Crime Commissioners in November will be lower than 25 per cent. The Government will introduce a House of Lords Reform Bill, which, despite a couple of minor rebellions, will sail through the Commons and founder in the Lords. George Osborne will start spending a lot of time with the Conservative Association in Kensington and Westminster so that he still has a berth when his Tatton seat is abolished.

In Europe, the euro will survive without losing a single member and the 26 other members of the EU will insist on an end to all the national budget rebates, including the UK's, prompting Cameron to use his veto again. In return for keeping the rebate, Cameron will sign up to a new EU treaty, with saving clauses for the UK, and will declare that, since it does not give any new powers to the EU, there is no need for a referendum. When the Bill comes to the Commons he will lose a vote on an in-or-out referendum to be held in May 2013.

After rigging his re-election, Putin will become yet more repressive in the face of mass demonstrations. Sarkozy will lose, narrowly. Obama will win, easily. Iran will rattle its scimitar and either Israel or the US will respond with force. In matters cultural, Mark Thompson will step down and the BBC will get its first female director-general; and, despite securing our largest ever haul of Olympic medals, the press will moan about the weather and the public transport. James Murdoch and President Assad will stand aside.