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Ed Balls: Cameron? He's treading on thin ice

The Tory leader thought he could attract voters with his 'Year of Change', but his policies disintegrated under the first scrutiny

This weekend, all across the country, Labour party members, MPs and candidates are out in the snow and ice – delivering leaflets, knocking on doors, or on the telephones in the warm talking to voters. And the strong message I am hearing from activists in my constituency and from MPs right across the country is that their labours are starting to bear fruit.

People who months ago felt let down by Labour as they feared for their jobs and their homes are now seeing that the action that we took on the recession – preventing financial collapse and investing in jobs and public services – has prevented a return to the misery of the 1980s and early 1990s.

And people on the doorstep remain deeply unconvinced by a Tory party which talks about a decade of austerity and threatens to freeze their pay and cut their local schools and hospitals. David Cameron thought that last week was his chance to persuade voters they could trust in his promise of a "Year of Change". He thought Monday was going to be all about his airbrushed posters and new slogans.

It turned out to be the day when his policies fell apart under the first proper scrutiny. This election is far from over – the more the voters hear from David Cameron the more worried they get. And the sense of optimism that Monday gave to Labour activists was bolstered as, on Wednesday, Gordon Brown got the better of his opponent in exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Time. David Cameron once again looked rattled and annoyed. Reading out a script no longer works for the Tory leader – which does not bode well for him in the television debates to come.

But optimism turned to frustration within a matter of hours. Just when the Conservative Party relaunch was collapsing, the indiscipline and introversion of a few individuals let David Cameron off the hook.

The Parliamentary Labour Party was unequivocal in its disdain for plots and coups. But any time a political party looks divided and more worried about its own internal politics rather than the concerns and aspirations of the voters, it pays a price.

When all our energies that day ought to have been on dealing with the snow emergency, getting us out of recession and tackling the security threat in Britain and throughout the world, the last thing voters wanted to see was a party turning inwards.

So the message from Labour Party activists and candidates to the Cabinet and all of us at Westminster is clear: unite and take the election fight to the Tories. Yes, it's been a challenging 12 months. We've seen the biggest global recession for decades. It's been tough for families, pensioners and businesses. So no wonder it's been tough politically for government.

But as we have worked to steer our economy out of recession, people are no longer simply blaming the government but focussing instead on the choices between Labour and Conservative on where we go from here and different visions of the future.

Should we keep supporting our economy and put securing the recovery first, while taking the tough and necessary decisions across government to steadily halve the deficit over the next four years? Or do we get the deficit down more quickly and slash spending on job creation and public investment, which would risk the recovery and push us back into recession?

Should we combine fair tax rises and tough decisions on efficiency and non-essential programmes to protect frontline services such as schools and the police? Or should we cut funding to those services instead?

In these difficult times for the public finances, is it a priority for our country to spend £1.5bn every year on an inheritance tax cut which would benefit the 3,000 richest estates?

On education, do we guarantee one-to-one tuition for children falling behind, education and training up to 18 for all young people, with new school report cards for parents? Or do we pursue a reckless free market experiment with the state system, and cut the frontline schools budgets relied on by millions to give an inheritance tax cut to the wealthiest few?

And underpinning all these choices is a deeper debate about the role of government.

People know that if we had taken David Cameron and George Osborne's advice and stood back and done nothing – less regulation, less intervention, lower public spending, less state support for jobs and public investment – unemployment would be higher and the recession deeper and we would not be looking forward to recovery this year.

People know that the lesson of this recession is that they need an active government on their side and not a laissez-faire government leaving them to sink or swim. The Conservatives and their friends in the media think that even to talk in these terms about dividing lines between Conservative and Labour is to play old-fashioned politics or even wage class war.

But how can prioritising the many, not the few, be class war when it was the cornerstone of Tony Blair's reform of the Labour constitution in 1994: the very foundation of the new Labour vision which led directly to a national minimum wage, tax credits to reward work and tackle poverty and helping a million more people to own their own homes? How can the new Clause 4 be the old class war?

And for those who say we should not talk about choices, I say politics is fundamentally about different choices. However much the Tories want it to be, this election will not simply be a referendum on the Government or change for change's sake. The message from the doorstep is that people know there is a choice to be made. And, as we saw at the start of the week, and must continue to see in the months to come, the days when the Conservatives could airbrush their policies and hope nobody will see the ugly truth underneath are coming to an end.

That is why this is a debate and an election we can win. David Cameron may have wriggled off the hook this week. But he can and will be caught in the end.

Ed Balls is Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families