The results of last Thursday’s council elections confirm Labour's modest but steady progress since its historic general election defeat in 2010. Labour made significant advances, even though many seats being fought were in hostile territory. New leadership has begun to reinvigorate the party, and a wide-ranging policy review is underway. The Tory-led Coalition appears increasingly accident prone, and is being dragged to the right by an insurgent Ukip threat, crushing David Cameron's hopes of establishing a new brand of centrist conservatism.
But it is clear that Labour still faces an uphill task if it is to win a governing majority in 2015 able to sustain the party in what everyone recognises will be challenging circumstances. The truth is that Labour is still not doing well enough to be confident of victory. It is an inescapable fact that if the party is to win the next election, it has to do much better in southern England. The sheer number of seats in these areas makes them key to a successful electoral strategy: in the South East alone outside London, there are 114 seats. South of the line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, there are 302 parliamentary constituencies. Labour will not win an electoral majority by amassing more votes in the northern and Celtic heartlands.
The challenge for the party is re-establish the electoral coalition that brought it three consecutive victories, while recognising that it cannot just re-use the electoral play-book that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown fashioned in the 1990s. Ed Miliband is right to argue that the public have moved on from New Labour. For one, there is visceral anger at the lack of accountability among Britain's political and economic elite, manifested in the parliamentary expenses scandal and the outcry over banker's bonuses. British politics today feels more fluid and unpredictable: we have entered a phase of multi-party politics in an age when politics itself has never been held in greater disrepute. In appealing to voters in the southern seats it has to win, Labour must avoid the comforting but fundamentally illusory belief that the British people have shifted irrevocably to the left. Instead they have moved against the British political establishment, which, like it or not, includes Labour.
Labour enjoys a four-point lead over the Conservatives in the national projected vote share – a considerable improvement on 2009 when these seats were last fought, but this hardly indicates a decisive shift back towards power. In the Kent marginals that tend to determine which party can secure a parliamentary majority at Westminster, Labour’s progress was patchy. The party gained seats but its progress was halted by the Ukip surge. In bellwether constituencies such as Gravesham and Dartford, Labour gained several wards but the Conservatives were able to hold on to many of their councillors. In the Essex new towns, Labour made progress by winning nine wards across the county. However in 1997, Labour had won 23 out of 79 seats here. The swing towards Labour across the South was, more often than not, underwhelming.
We have entered a phase of multi-party politics in an age when politics itself has never been held in greater disrepute. In appealing to voters in the southern seats it has to win, Labour must avoid the comforting but fundamentally illusory belief that the British people have shifted irrevocably to the left. Instead they have moved against the British political establishment -- which, like it or not, includes Labour.
Moreover, people no longer see policy issues in conventional 'left'/'right' terms. Indeed, they are increasingly uncomfortable with the false choices implied by what passes for political debate at Westminster. On the economy, many voters are desperate for a stimulus programme that revitalises Britain's infrastructure and housing stock, and gets the young unemployed back to work. But they fear that too much profligacy and an increase in public debt will endanger economic stability. They want to see vital investment in schools and the NHS, but they also demand greater value for money and an end to waste. Voters recognise that it is necessary for the rich to pay a higher share of tax in an era of austerity, but those on average incomes feel squeezed, and want government to recognise that the burden is already high enough for them.
Above all, Labour has to win the battle of ideas. The lesson of history is that Labour triumphs when, as in 1945, 1964, and 1997, it is seen as a party capable of uniting a broad spectrum of constituencies and classes. This means reaching out beyond narrow, partisan and tribal lines, demonstrating that Labour is a national party capable of governing in the national interest. Winning voters trust to manage the economy competently, spend responsibly, and tax fairly need not be achieved at the expense of improving conditions for those most in need, tackling inequalities of income and wealth. In challenging times, Labour must be a party capable of offering a hand up to those who want to get on, as well as a helping hand to those in trouble.
Patrick Diamond is a former Downing Street policy adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown