Since his election nearly a year ago, David Cameron has passed a pivotal test for any leader of the opposition. He is an agenda setter. Indeed Mr Cameron casts light on causes that received little attention for decades. Suddenly there are debates about poverty, the importance of achieving a balance between work and quality of life, the causes of crime, the dangers of greedy businesses promoting unsuitable products, the environment and the importance of avoiding a subservient relationship with the US. In its rare moments of self-confidence, Labour's leadership has occasionally dared to raise one of these issues. If it were asked to highlight all of them it would have a collective nervous breakdown and run to the reactionary focus groups for comfort.
For much of the time the Government chooses to highlight security, crime, war, the renewal of Trident, the importance of the private sector in the running of public services and the centrality of Britain's alliance with the US.
Ministers fume that Mr Cameron is getting an easy ride, not least from columnists that are supposedly on the centre left. But part of the reason for Mr Cameron's uncritical media audience is that he strides on to terrain that has been neglected for decades in terms of public debate. After 18 years of Conservative rule there was a desire to hear different issues highlighted and prejudices challenged. Following a decade of a Labour government preaching themes that echoed timidly those of the 1980s, it is Mr Cameron that speaks with a progressive tone.
The contrast in relation to poverty is especially stark. In the summer of 2003 allies of Gordon Brown told me he planned to make a major speech on poverty the following autumn. The speech was already written. They explained that he had not delivered it in the summer because of fears the words would be seen solely as an attempt to challenge Mr Blair. But by the autumn their relations had worsened still. He did not deliver the speech then either. The words continued to gather dust in a Treasury drawer. Presumably the dust gathers still. Now Mr Brown has other priorities, seeking to prove that he will be as tough on security and as evangelical about public service "reform" as Mr Blair.
Mr Brown has been more gripped by the need to address poverty than any other politician in the land. I am told that he and his inner circle agonise about the issue privately more than any other. Yet his 2003 speech on poverty remains undelivered. Not known for his lifelong interest in the subject, Mr Cameron speaks of little else.
Fortunately some of Mr Brown's closest allies feel less constrained. There were two speeches on poverty delivered last week, although only Mr Cameron made waves. The minister responsible for the voluntary sector, Ed Miliband, also made a substantial address on the issue. Mr Miliband stressed that a partnership between the voluntary sector and the state was necessary for a more effective approach to poverty. Mr Cameron plays down the importance of the state. Mr Miliband dared to play it up.
Mr Miliband enthused about the innovative and agile voluntary sector in the same manner as the Conservative leader. But he was also blunt: "There are things that the sector can do that the state cannot. I'll be honest with you: I think there are things that the state can do that the voluntary sector cannot." This should be a statement of the obvious, but in an era when any reference to the state is regarded as stifling, repressive or wasteful it becomes courageous politics.
Mr Miliband pointed out that it takes government to guarantee public services are available to all that need them. He added that elected politicians are accountable. They have to explain their actions and can be removed. Thirdly he pointed to examples where the government made a positive difference working with the voluntary sector: "Sure Start provides sites in which people can come together... These organisations would have been worse off from a model which says the state should stand aside."
Compare this subtly argued speech, punctuated with detailed policy examples, with Mr Cameron's address. Mr Cameron argued powerfully that the poor could not be left behind, citing Polly Toynbee's now famous image of the caravan moving on without some on board. This has major policy implications, many of which even Mr Miliband does not dare to contemplate. Almost inevitably the implications lead to the thorny issue of tax, a taboo for both parties. At the very least, as Mr Miliband did argue, there is a need for a modern state working in partnership with the voluntary sector. But Mr Cameron limits his prescriptions to an admiration for the voluntary sector and exhortations about social responsibility and the importance of family life.
This is the equivalent of acknowledging that Third World poverty is a problem and that we should leave it to Bono and Oxfam to address it, ignoring the overwhelming potential of governments. Yet when there is political will it is the governments that have the resources to wipe out Third World debt.
The pivotal divide between the parties is over the role of the state. Potentially Mr Cameron is in a fatal contortion. He makes speeches that imply new regulations and a more active state, yet he seeks tax cuts, fewer regulations and a smaller state. How can he make pledges in relation to progressive objectives when the means to bring them about will have little to do with government? But he will become vulnerable only if Labour dares to make the case more persistently for a modern state.
Today's poll in The Independent suggests Labour is performing reasonably well by highlighting a reactionary set of issues. It will not win the next election on that basis. Unless it restores faith in a modern progressive role for government, the path will be clear for Mr Cameron. Mr Miliband showed how it could be done, but he is not yet a big player in the Cabinet. His speech was unreported. A visitor from Mars - or indeed Venus - would assume that Mr Cameron was the coming leader bursting with ideas as to how to address poverty while the Government was bothered only about Asbos and the renewal of Trident.
In reality some in the Govern-ment burst with policies in relation to poverty, but do not talk about them very often. Their words need to be shouted loudly and often by Labour's biggest figures still trapped by their 1980s political apprenticeships, too preoccupied by cowardly attempts to appear big and strong. They need to now as these are complex arguments. Most of the populist slogans belong to their opponents that call simplistically for the state to "get off our backs".
If the argument is postponed until close to a general election campaign, it will be far too late. Mr Cameron sets the agenda only because a Labour government has left him free to do so.Reuse content