Can Labour exorcise this spectre of defeat?

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Of the many folk memories which lumber out of Labour's chronically disappointing past to haunt the party's subconscious, the 1970 general election is one of the most potent. Then as now, Labour was led by a man with an already proven record as an election winner. Then as now, Labour had, as it approached polling day, the services of the best Chancellor of the Exchequer in its history to date. Then as now, it was assumed by politicians and pundits that it would win. Instead, a stiff and not particularly loved Conservative leader snatched a victory that most of his own allies had thought impossible from under the nose of the electoral wizard in Downing Street. Having seemed for four years to be the natural party of government, Labour once again proved that it wasn't.

Perhaps Labour will do much better than it expects in today's local elections. (It could hardly do worse.) Perhaps the Liberal Democrats will destabilise William Hague by winning Romsey. Perhaps Frank Dobson will win the London mayoralty. But none of these things, least of all the third, is likely. And if so, it's quite possible that we will start to hear quite a lot about how Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 election.

The results, in short, may expose in Labour just a sliver of real fear of defeat at the next general election. In judging whether the 1970 parallel is significant, it is important to understand that the lessons of tonight's probable defeats are at once lesser and greater than they seem.

The first concerns spin and New Labour's consuming preoccupation with what it sees as an unwholesomely fickle press - illustrated in a minor way by the Prime Minister devoting some of Monday to writing a rebuttal of an attack by The Sun newspaper. (Did it really have to be him?) Consider two wholly different defining moments for coverage of the Mr Blair government. The more recent was the Lisbon EU summit, which in most British newspapers was given the most perfunctory coverage. Yet Mr Blair set the agenda for that summit on economic reform with such success that France's Le Monde yesterday devoted three worried pages to lamenting Mr Blair's dominance of the EU. In so far as Le Monde headlines shout, they shouted yesterday: "Anglo-Saxon management infiltrates the Commission"; "Tony Blair has secured a slowdown of the process of integration"; "King Tony likes Europe but [is British] by preference". The most spun government in history hasn't been able to secure a whiff of that kind of headline here.

But then consider the earlier case, which was the acme of the opposite phenomenon. In 1998, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both used some creative accounting to claim their spending decisions were worth £41bn. The result was to hyper-inflate expectations, to damage the Government's credibility and probably to depress the enthusiasm with which the figures for - a real - increase in health spending were received this year. Yet at the time the press largely swallowed the inflated figures, and has never quite forgiven itself since.

Indeed, these are both cases in which we in the press let ourselves down - once to the short-term advantage of the Government and once wholly to its disadvantage. It's unlikely that the order in which they happened is a coincidence. (Certainly the press was in a much more sceptical and stroppy mood by the time of Lisbon.) But even if it is, both cases illustrate not only the dangers but also the limits of spin. This isn't to excuse the underplaying of the Lisbon story. But the Government has played more of a part than it likes to acknowledge in creating the cynicism about its real achievements of which it complains so frequently.

Second, reprehensible though his chosen theme may have been, William Hague made a fight of this local election campaign. Opposition spokesmen - in stark contrast to Cabinet ministers - have little else to do than fight for votes. For Mr Hague, moreover, there was the added incentive that he needs good results tonight to reinforce his own leadership in the party.

But ministers would do well to realise that against a resilient Opposition leader who relishes what he sees as a fight against the entire liberal establishment, they have to do even more than merely run the country. This should have meant a more robust attack on Mr Hague's choice of asylum as an election issue, backing determined action against criminal gangs exploiting would-be immigrants, but rather more stoutly defending those desperate to improve their lot, not to mention escape tyranny and danger. The corollary of not relying on spin is to be a little braver about taking on would-be populist criticism in public. But in particular, it should have meant offering electors a reason for voting for them.

For, third, the electoral message cannot be confined to exaggerated scare stories about the demons that would be visited on the British people if the Tories won. Oddly, this very tactic may owe something to 1970 when, Labour veterans believe, they didn't make the Tories seem frightening enough. But incumbent governments have to do more than campaign negatively against the Opposition. Which now means making rather more of the often - though not invariably - unglamorous ways in which the Government intends to continue changing Britain, not least through greater social inclusion, a visibly improving NHS and further radical plans for reform of the public services, to convince the electorate that its money will be well spent.

And fourth - though this is in a different category and for another day - the probable defeats tonight should persuade some of those seeking to block electoral reform that huge first-past-the-post landslides may not be for ever. At the very least they should encourage this year's Labour conference to retain the promise of a referendum on the electoral system, as, a forthcoming survey will indicate, a majority of individual party members want it to.

All this said, this is not 1970, when devaluation cast a much longer and deeper shadow than any event in this parliament has remotely done. The Blair government has seen steadily rising living standards for those in work - including some of the poorest (though not yet enough for the least well-off pensioners). The Chancellor of the Exchequer has presided over economic stability unknown in Labour administrations. It's even conceivable that the heavy strains on manufacturing industry because of the high pound can be turned electorally to Labour's advantage by casting doubt on Mr Hague's determination to rule out the euro.

Finally, Labour should have a story to tell without claiming that the Tories want to dismantle the National Health Service. If despite, the private doubts of a few in the Shadow Cabinet, the Tories stick to their absolute guarantee of tax cuts in a single parliament, it can, as Al Gore will this year in the US, contrast its own determination to improve public services with that of the Tories to reduce taxes.

And if the outcome of today's elections on ministerial style is a little less spin and a little more collective statesmanship, it will not be a bad day's work.