Steve Richards: Brown looks ever more like King Lear

Both Labour and the Tories have concluded that the televised debates are driving this election alone and that there is no purpose in staging much in between

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This is a sweaty, nerve-wracking, gloriously unpredictable election, but there is one constant, unchanging factor. No opinion poll for months has placed Labour in the lead. Recently nearly all of them suggest the party is in third place. In spite of this, some of Labour's key players are thrilled. Suddenly there is everything to play for. Their excitement is part of the weirdness of this hallucinatory campaign. Coming third would be a catastrophe for Labour, however many seats it won.

Since last Thursday's televised debate much of the critical focus has been on David Cameron and the Conservatives' campaign. There has been quite a lot of attention too on Nick Clegg and the Cleggmania that surrounds him. Relatively little has been written or spoken about Labour's campaign. The theme of the week is that the Conservatives are suddenly in crisis, Clegg is walking on water and Labour plods on, vaguely in the picture but something of a blur. The theme is understandable in the sense that Cameron appeared to be striding towards No 10. Now he fights to secure an overall majority of one.

But at least he retains the slim hope of winning. The current situation is more dangerous for Labour, and yet its tired, subdued campaign fails to reflect the urgency.

When there was a possibility of Labour coming third in 1987 Neil Kinnock fought with exuberant energy. The rest of the campaign had vivacious flair too. As Peter Mandelson joked afterwards: "We won the campaign, but lost the election". As far as they were concerned at least they managed to halt the SDP/Liberal Alliance bandwagon. They won the campaign and the battle for second place.

At the moment they are not winning the campaign and might come third. Cameron was criticised for failing to highlight the "big society" theme of his manifesto during last week's debate. But Brown did not raise the idea behind his manifesto either. Indeed I have only heard one cabinet minister suggest there is an idea behind Labour's manifesto. On the day of its launch Ed Miliband said there was a big argument running through Labour's programme about government being on the side of people. I have not heard the argument since. Perhaps others do not believe it. Maybe it has been dropped as an overriding idea. Perhaps it was never an overriding idea in the first place. At least Cameron returns to his big society on a fairly regular basis, even if few have much idea what it means.

Gordon Brown pops up on TV most days at a factory, in a canteen, or perhaps walking around a supermarket, during which he notes repeatedly that he did not win last week's debate on presentation, but is pleased that the issues are being discussed, not that he is seen spending much time discussing the issues. That is more or less it.

His appearances around the country are in marked contrast to the last three campaigns, when he and his closest advisers pulled the strings from the party's headquarters in London. He and they were mighty then.

Now Brown is like King Lear wandering from place to place with his entourage, having been removed from the centre that he once ruled. The dynamics of the election campaign echo those that shaped his most recent months as Prime Minister, when cabinet ministers became more assertive and he had no choice but to obey. Brown was more powerful and influential when he was Chancellor, in terms of running the country and in determining the course of election campaigns.

Senior Labour strategists point out that they attempted to hold a major press conference on the economy on Tuesday. It included sophisticated presentations from Brown and his Chancellor, Alistair Darling. Not a single question that followed from journalists was on the economy. All of them related to Cleggmania and a hung parliament. They wonder whether there is any point. I understand why they wonder. Both Labour and the Conservatives have concluded that the televised debates are driving this election alone and that there is no purpose in staging much in between. Obviously a single event has transformed the campaign. It was not a morning press conference or an interview. Nonetheless, they are making a mistake.

In the Conservatives' case, they are wasting one of Cameron's biggest assets, the capacity to deal with questions from journalists on any issue with tenacity and humour. Labour's omission is more fundamental. An election campaign is partly about giving the impression of energy, momentum and direction, even when the tide is flowing against you. Kinnock did this in 1987, when a visitor from Mars would have assumed that he was heading straight for No 10. They would not reach such a conclusion viewing Brown's campaign so far, and Brown is the Prime Minister.

Until last week's debate Cameron had largely set the agenda with his tax cuts, put together with alarming, disturbing haste, and to some extent with his manifesto launch. After Thursday night, Clegg has done so simply by being Clegg. He is established as the anti-politics candidate and that is a massive agenda in itself.

Labour is seeking a fourth term. As David Miliband has put it, his party is making "a massive ask". Such a quest would be challenging at the best of times. After a recession and the expenses' scandal, this is not by any means the best of times. In such circumstances it should be seeking to set the agenda ever hour of every day. Brown and members of the cabinet (what happened to the idea of presenting Labour as an experienced team?) should be at early morning press conferences, mid-afternoon press conferences, rallies, and giving interviews around the clock.

Arguments about the economy should be assertive and sharp. Its proposals for constitutional reform are genuinely historic even if adopted for desperately expedient motives. Their historic nature should be shouted from the rooftops. If Tony Blair took a walk in the garden in No 10 he presented it as a transport revolution. Surely policies that are genuinely revolutionary can be projected in ways that at least sound interesting?

There are deep reasons for Labour's shapeless campaign. It is a party suffering an identity crisis after Blair hailed the era of political cross dressing and Brown affected to be the apolitical father of the nation. There are divisions over future direction, most fundamentally over the role of the state. The impact of Iraq lingers. But there are splits in the other parties too and they still manage to give the impression, albeit superficial, of having more energy. A superficial sense of energy might inject some life into Labour's campaign.

At a packed Independent readers' meeting in Brighton on Tuesday night, one of the questioners raised the issue of inequality. The Labour -supporting panellist responded by citing the minimum wage. He was virtually booed off the stage even though he was making an important and valid point. This was in a Labour constituency. Of all the extraordinary moods whirling around this election the anti-Labour one remains very strong.

In tonight's debate there will be much attention on Cameron and of course on Clegg. It is Brown who needs to give the performance of his life.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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