Today's poll confirms the Brown bounce was of the dead cat variety. The talk in Government is of being on election footing but unless Labour's strategists are willing to respond to dangerous times with bold ways of thinking David Cameron can start counting down the days to power.
Until a few weeks ago, there was a genuine sense of hope in Labour ranks. Ministers sensed a powerful combination in public opinion; on the one hand, a rejection of the free market individualism held responsible for the credit crunch, on the other, disenchantment with a faltering Tory response to the crisis that seemed out of step with the rest of the world, including Saint Obama.
The reality, however, is more prosaic. It turns out Labour's poll improvement reflected misapprehension not realignment. Many voters believed the hype and thought the first bank bailout might be an end to the crisis. But, as the blip in economic optimism has passed, so has Labour's modest advance in the polls.
As for the Conservatives' position, for Westminster insiders and policy wonks, there is plenty with which to take issue. Across many policies there seems a mismatch between the rhetorical pose of Team Cameron and the policy detail. But the facts are simple. Labour has been in power for three terms, the economy is a disaster area, David Cameron has detoxified the Tory brand and Gordon Brown finds it almost impossible to connect with swathes of the electorate.
Labour strategists cling to the little noticed fact that tax, benefit and interest rate changes mean people who don't rely on savings or expect to lose their jobs (which is most of us) will enjoy a faster rise in disposable income this year than in almost a decade. But if Labour is to benefit politically from green shoots in 2010 it has to persuade the voters not to make their minds up before then. And perhaps the single biggest characteristic of voter attitudes in the last two years has been volatility; no one predicted the Brown honeymoon, the collapse, or the mini revival. Which is why the last thing Labour should be doing is to start fighting a long election campaign. With the economy as it is now, Labour has no chance of winning a conventional battle. Most of the team that helped Tony Blair win three elections is now back inside the Brown tent but ageing strategists, like generals, are always prone to fight the last battle.
A techie friend of mine recently characterised Labour's attempts to adopt Obama-style internet campaigning as like "watching your grandfather dancing to hip-hop".
In that context, any strategy may fail but Labour should consider a more radical departure from past practice. How about declaring a unilateral political ceasefire? Brown's implicit message could be 'we are reconciled to the possibility of losing the next election, what matters now is not the political skirmish but the battle against the economic crisis'.
Not only is this a more seemly and inspiring posture for the times – and one which might tap into the Dunkirk spirit the nation needs right now – it encourages an electorate, for whom politics is far from a priority, to suspend judgement until next year.
The strategy would only work if it was authentic. Ministers would need to put point scoring to one side. And even if it failed, at least this would be an honourable path to defeat. After Thatcher and Blair, we tend to think new Governments will get at least three terms, but those who remember the 1970s recall when the parties took it in turns to fail on the economy. We may live in a world that feels it is changing daily, but the Government needs to play a long game.Reuse content