Steve Richards: Labour needs to find a new narrative. And the Conservatives must stick to their story

Cameron has the protective shield of high poll ratings to resist another tax-cutting trap
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The Independent Online

The last week has been more significant than the extraordinary few days last autumn when the fortunes of the two main parties changed suddenly. When Gordon Brown and his advisers mishandled the early election fiasco, we witnessed a highly charged piece of theatre, the consequences of which are still being played out. But a story about election timing was never going to be a running theme for years to come. There was always a possibility that over time the Government could move on from the shambles and reassert its authority.

The events of the last few days are different. They involve themes that are more lasting and substantial, ones on which elections can turn. On the day after the Budget, the mood in Downing Street was relatively sanguine. They had hoped for a more positive media reaction in relation to some initiatives but as one senior figure put it to me, "it could have been a lot worse". Then, over the weekend, it became clear that the voters' reaction was a lot worse. Two polls showed Labour's support falling on average from 34 per cent to 29 per cent. As John Curtice wrote in yesterday's Independent, "the chances are very low indeed that two polls would show a decisive drop in Labour support if the tide of public opinion had not turned against the party".

For David Cameron and George Osborne, the verdicts of the weekend's polls vindicate their strategy of not dangling tax cuts in front of the electorate at every opportunity. Of course, two fleeting polls are not the end of the matter and they will continue to face pressure from within their party and from influential websites and newspapers.

I remember Tony Blair, an astute and over conscientious observer of his opponents, telling me a few years ago that the Conservatives were ill-served by "their newspapers". He explained that in the 1980s the few Labour supporting newspapers urged the party to move to vote winning positions, while from 1997 the Tory papers tended to propel their party rightwards towards electoral oblivion. At least now Mr Cameron has the protective shield of high poll ratings to resist falling into another tax cutting trap.

If Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne were to propose specific overall tax cuts another entire election campaign would be based around fantasy tax and spending figures. I have an image now of the BBC's Nick Robinson at the last election, doing several pieces to camera with pages of documents in each hand attempting to make sense of the two parties' conflicting efficiency proposals. He could have been reporting from Mars in terms of the practical relevance of the documents. The moment an overall tax cut is proposed, the debate shifts to how it will be financed. It is a question that an opposition party can never answer convincingly.

Anyway, public services are still nowhere near as good as they should be and therefore the scope for genuine cuts is limited. As Alistair Darling pointed out in his Budget, the current Government has made improvements from a low starting point. The challenge now is to make them much better still.

When are we going to get Swedish politicians coming over here to see how we provide services rather than the other way around? Reform and changing the culture are part of the answer, but so is the level of investment. Better services in parts of Europe have benefited from decades of decent investment. Britain is only just starting out on the road.

That does not mean there is no waste. There are huge inefficiencies, but they are easier to identify than address. In big organisations with guaranteed incomes, the bureaucrats in charge of seeking efficiencies are quite often those that are most dispensable. Not surprisingly, they do not share such a view of their dispensability and cut services rather than themselves.

Perhaps a Conservative government might have more success in reducing costs without damaging public services, although I would not bet on it. For sure, in opposition they would be foolish to make specific pledges as a cover for tax cuts. Once more, its leadership would be dancing around meaningless details from the moment of the announcement to polling day.

Apparently, Mr Cameron is looking again at the report prepared for Michael Howard on efficiency savings before the last election. For the Conservatives, the proposals might be worth revisiting in government, but not in opposition. Look what happened the last time the report formed the basis of an election campaign. The Conservatives were slaughtered. Look what happened to the polls this weekend when Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne resisted the lure of tax and spending cuts. They soared in the polls.

Assuming that the duo keep to their current strategy – and to renege on it would be fatal for their credibility – Labour will have less ammunition than usual at a general election. Yet last week's Budget was constructed along the same lines as Mr Brown's used to be when he faced a Tory leadership that fell into every "tax and spend" trap. A brief summary of the narrative would be: "The economic situation is not brilliant, but nowhere near as bad as it was under the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s."

The weekend polls suggest this dividing line with the past does not work any more. Admittedly, the Conservatives used bleak images from the "winter of discontent" in 1979 for more than ten years in an attempt to damage Labour. But the images were more vivid compared with quotes from the fiscal deficit in 1988. Even with the startling pictures of the unburied dead and the rest, I doubt if it was the winter of discontent that explains why Labour lost for a fourth time in 1992. Mr Brown and Mr Darling must find new ways of telling a story because they function in an entirely new context of economic insecurity and face a politically subtler opposition. The dividing lines with the past do not work anymore. A change of narrative will not be easy for them. There are fewer levers to pull when the economic constraints are so tight. I wonder also how many fresh narratives political leaders have in them. Having been the author of the epic, sprawling vote winning story about dividing lines, prudence with a purpose, for the many and not the few, Brown must hit upon new structures, language and devices.

The last epic was composed in the 1990s when the Conservative government was falling apart over Europe and the ERM humiliation. This time it is a Labour government that is fragile and the political context is likely to get more challenging still if Ken Livingstone loses London in May, an outcome that would spark a thousand stories over the summer about Labour in crisis.

This is a big moment. Labour must find a new story to tell. The Conservative leadership must stick to theirs. Cameron will find it easier to do so while Labour is stuck in its most precarious place since the 1992 election.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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