Labour will carry on losing if it refuses to listen to its friends

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The Independent Online

Early reactions to Labour's setback last Thursday, were predictable. With headlines like "poll battering" and "old party rules no longer apply", one might be forgiven for viewing those elections as a seismic shift in the fortunes of the Government.

Early reactions to Labour's setback last Thursday, were predictable. With headlines like "poll battering" and "old party rules no longer apply", one might be forgiven for viewing those elections as a seismic shift in the fortunes of the Government.

The dire predictions of the tabloids no more reflected the reality of the situation, than did the smug complacency of those commentators whose main role appears to be as apologists for New Labour, warts and all. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The London mayoralty campaign was an unmitigated disaster, and everyone recognises that it was the case. Romsey? Disastrous for the Tories, of course, and a classic case of a third party being squeezed - in this case, Labour. The council elections, however, were very different, and certainly important.

This is not because there is a straightforward connection between local election results and those of a general election. On the contrary: the evidence is of an often discerning electorate, increasingly sophisticated in its choice from a veritable smorgasbord of candidates.

Yet it is also true that tribal loyalties to a given party also remain a feature in much of the country.

The particular circumstances of Romsey and London meant, of course, that there was a switching of votes from where they went in the last general election. In the local elections, however, the dominant feature from a Labour perspective, was the low turn-out in many areas.

It is axiomatic in Labour's electoral experience that a low turn-out damages Labour candidates most of all. This is quite apart from the damage done to the credibility and desirability of participatory democracy.

Doubtless some will say that this is an increasingly depressing phenomenon, and - in the case of local elections - reflects the incessant emasculation of local government.

The logic is simple. Fewer meaningful decisions are allegedly made at local level; ergo, why bother to vote?

Certainly, this is an argument which is very attractive to thousands of local councillors, who often double up as leading local activists. Damage to their morale has a knock-on effect of diminished local campaigning. Of itself, this does not account for the large numbers of "core" Labour voters who simply stayed at home rather than went to vote. Yes, campaigning is important: but campaigners and voters must in turn be enthused with the policies on offer if they are to be galvanised in their respective roles. This is not happening.

My own view is that the campaigning and organisational wing of Labour needs to be revitalised if we are to recapture the fervour of the last general election campaign. At that time, of course, there was the burning desire to keep the Tories out. Now supporters need to be energised to keep Labour in.

The key to this lies in policy, and its presentation. I emphasise the latter because good policies do not appear to have always resonated with Labour supporters. Perhaps the presentation of such policies has taken too much note of the perceived prejudices of swing voters, and not enough of the eager anticipation of traditional Labour voters. The spin doctors will hopefully change such errant ways.

However, consideration of policy substance is unavoidable. We are all aware of the arguments over Prudence and her twin sister Patience.

I do not know a single Labour Party member who believes in a return to tax and spend as in the old days. I do know many, however, who feel unease about key issues which affect them and their communities, and who are desperately anxious that the Government addresses them.

First, the majority of us look to public service delivery of a quality and on a scale unimaginable under the Tories. Huge amounts are being pumped into health and other areas, but the money itself is meaningless to most people. It is the delivery on the ground which counts. They know it takes time, but the subtleties of a long courtship of Prudence pass them by.

Second, there can be little doubt about the salience of pensions in the electoral debate. Again, sophisticated arguments drawing on everything from a minimum income guarantee to greatly increased cold weather payments do not wash. Nor does the targeting of the poorest pensioners cut much ice with those on small occupational pensions.

It is the basic pension which is totemic. The pensioners have a simple view: they have paid in during their working lives, and want a return now.

Incidentally, arguments that pensioners do not vote Labour are fatuous and immoral. They do vote, and - even if not for Labour - we are still morally obligated to them. Remember too, that pensioners have families - real people who often look with trepidation towards their own retirement. Antagonise them at your peril.

Third, there is the sorry state of manufacturing. We have had failed government industrial policy for over 30 years. Some might argue that is because we are culturally averse to manufacturing. Nevertheless, there is a real problem, with continuing job losses, and threats to inward investment. The strong pound exacerbates existing problems.

In areas like northern England, or the West Midlands, there is a huge overlap between the demise of our industrial heartlands and social exclusion. In many regards, the key to the latter is the rejuvenation of the former. There was at least a partial recognition of this in Italy when that country invested its own mobile phone licence windfall in higher education and research.

That is why I believe it would be a grave mistake if the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, simply used his £22.5bn windfall to repay a tiny fraction of our national debt.

It may well be that the Treasury and economics pundits will think highly of him for doing so. The electorate - including our own party members and supporters - would prefer him to reflect their concerns. After all, we want them to turn out and vote once again - for Labour.

The writer is Labour MP for Liverpool Walton and a former minister.