Philip Cowley: Labour admitted it had more weaknesses than strengths

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The Independent Online

Metaphors about British politics are usually either military or sporting – the former is most obvious in the parties' "war books", their guides to any forthcoming campaign. All of the major parties had war books for the 2010 election. The Conservative war book was functional, 100 pages detailing the mechanics of the campaign; while the Lib Dems' was a detailed policy discussion of 500 pages, meant to support each of their manifesto claims.

Labour's masterplan was more strategic, a PowerPoint presentation of fewer than 30 slides, identifying the main battle lines. It is remarkable for how accurately it anticipated some aspects of the campaign, but also for what it did not foresee. The Conservative narrative, it accurately predicted, would be: "Britain is broken. Gordon Brown and Labour taxed, borrowed and spent in the good times and then, like every Labour government before, ran out of money. Now we are all paying the price in higher borrowing, higher taxes and higher unemployment."

The key strategic issue in elections is to define what the election is about. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister his mantra was "change", an attempt to distinguish himself from his predecessor. But by 2010, few believed that would wash with the public. As Peter Mandelson put it: "We were patently not the change." Instead, the party presented itself as one of two possible futures for Britain: "Change is the default option for the public", the war book noted. "Optimism and a better future is what they really want. This is the battle ground."

The war book's most revealing page, however, is an analysis in which there were listed so many Labour weaknesses that the authors had to use a smaller font. Some were obvious: "funding shortfall versus Tories", "media hostility", "time for a change". But others were so toxic that they had, even for internal consumption, to be presented as "perceptions" – "perceptions of lack of ideas and energy", "perceived lack of connection", and "perceptions of leadership".

The war book also stated presciently that the 2010 election would be the "most presidential election to date", but it also noted: "Labour lags on leadership".

Missing is any mention of the effect of the TV debates. Almost all those associated with the election realised that the debates would change the rhythm and structure of the campaign, and almost all underestimated just how transformative their effect would be. Revealingly, Labour's war book did not mention the Lib Dems or Nick Clegg once.

Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at Nottingham University, is the author (with Dennis Kavanagh) of The British General Election of 2010, to be published by Palgrave later this month

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