Andrew Grice: Wilson's jibe may return to haunt Brown

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The crushing weight of the economic crisis squeezes out time and space for other issues for both the politicians and the media. Yet in government, important work goes on beneath the radar. It must.

While Gordon Brown devotes most of his formidable energy to the economy, the best brains in Downing Street have realised that, whatever the state of the nation when the general election comes, Labour must have a story to tell that goes beyond the economy. It has started the very difficult task of sketching out what the party's pitch for a fourth term might be.

Without one, Labour would leave the field clear to David Cameron, who would be delighted to fill the vacuum. Some ministers worry that, after 13 years in power, Labour will look exhausted, both physically and in terms of ideas. Some already hear echoes of Harold Wilson's "13 wasted years" jibe, which helped him to election victory in 1964 after a long period of Tory rule.

It was much easier for Mr Wilson to project a forward-looking vision, encapsulated in his 1963 "the white heat of technology" speech, than the tired old Tories.

Next time, the boot will be on the other foot. For a governing party, each election gets harder. Renewal is much easier in opposition. As the Blair-to-Brown transition shows, changing the leader does not guarantee it. Mr Brown was renewed only by a financial crisis.

Even after the 1997 landslide, few Labour folk would have dreamt they would ever have an outside chance of winning a fourth term. Labour is still in the game, but it will be hard pounding. If it produces a manifesto fizzing with a new raft of reforms on health and education, people will ask why the hell it had not implemented them already. And wouldn't that be a public admission of too many wasted years?

Conversely, a safety-first, more-of-the-same manifesto would be outsparkled by the New Tories.

So, No 10 insiders argue, Labour will need to offer change by extending its reforms on public services – tailoring them more to people's individual needs and addressing new challenges such as social care. And it will have to spell out what a post-recession Britain would look like.

Expect Mr Wilson's "white heat" to be mirrored by Mr Brown's "green growth", though the Tories and Liberal Democrats are already on the case. The election battle has been foreshadowed in little-noticed speeches. Last week, Oliver Letwin, the Tories' influential policy chief, argued that Labour's biggest failures since 1997 had been caused by regulation – both under-regulation (bank lending, Equitable Life, Haringey children's services) and over-regulation (obsessive targets and box-ticking, which often fail to improve performance).

Mr Letwin called for less rule-based regulation and a return to a common sense system in which well-qualified professionals use their judgement to monitor services.

The Tories insist that their vision of smaller government in a "post-bureaucratic age" has not been overtaken by the dramatic economic events. I am not so sure. In a crisis, people expect the government to act.

This week, ministers had to fend off media questions about the weather: why had they allowed local authorities to run out of salt and close schools?

As I write this, a Tory press release pops into my inbox, headed: "Government must get a grip as Britain's grit crisis worsens. Labour ministers have let the country down with lack of emergency planning."

On Thursday, the Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne accused the Tories of wanting a "post-government age" and tried to head off the Tories' "Big Brother" charge. A government, he said, "should be the conductor, not the whole choir".

"We don't need a big government to have a strong state, but we do need a strong state to have a richer economy and a fairer society in years to come," he said, rehearsing Labour's election lines.

Although I remain a little sceptical, there is one powerful reason why Labour might finally bite the bullet and decentralise power: lack of money. Since 1999, Labour has delivered more investment than reform while promising both. Money for its flagship policies has been no object. Now the cash has run out, but it still needs fresh ideas for itsmanifesto.

Without them, Labour will fight the election on a promise to raise taxes to clear up the mess from the economic crisis, without offering people anything in return. Tricky? Very. Mr Brown will need his best brains to be in top gear.

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