Steve Richards: Operation Fightback is a clever idea. But signs of panic abound

Labour is re-writing the rules about how parties are meant to behave in public

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Amid the thousands of words spoken and written at Labour's conference the most vivid depiction of the mood came from a normally exuberant MP who was too miserable to utter a single sentence. When I bumped into him on the seafront, he looked up, pointed to the opinion poll in yesterday's Independent, sighed despondently, and walked on in silence. The poll placed Labour at 23 per cent, a rating that makes some of its lower moments in the 1980s seem something of a triumph.

Astutely Labour's strategists have responded to the mood by admitting they are in the doldrums. "Operation Fightback" was the slogan that formed the backdrop to the conference's opening session and is the theme of several ministerial speeches. This breaks all the normal rules about how parties are meant to behave in public – revolutionary in its own tiny way. At the Conservatives' pre-election conference in 1996 John Major and others pretended to regard the terrible polls with disdain.

"The only poll that matters is the one on election day" was the upbeat cliché deployed by senior Tories then. They were following tradition. When Labour was slaughtered in the Glasgow East by-election in 1982 I recall its representative on the TV panel argue that "this result means that Michael Foot will be Prime Minister in a year's time". It is a novelty for a pre-election conference to accept more or less the situation as it is, rather than pretending all is well. They will not close this particular conference with Queen's "We Are The Champions" ringing around the hall as they did on one occasion when they were pretending to be confident in the late 1980s.

The groundbreaking strategy reminds me of a song supporters of Spurs used to sing in those distant days when the team was performing badly. The poetic words were: "We're shit...And we're sick of it". In the end the counter-intuitive anthem lifted the team, although it took around 10 years. Like some football teams Labour is more suited to the role of publicly declared underdog. The New Labour leadership looked deeply uncomfortable when they were 20 or 30 points ahead in the polls. I remember having a brief word with David Miliband at the Royal Festival Hall on the night of Labour's 1997 triumph. He said: "I am sure we will wake up in the morning to find the Conservatives have won again". Ever since, ministers from Blair and Brown downwards have behaved as if they were impostors disturbing the natural order of things in which Britain, or rather England, returns Conservative governments. They can relax. The natural order appears to be reasserting itself.

So far Operation Fightback is having mixed results. At last there is a mighty co-ordinated attempt in Brighton to spell out the difference between their approach and the Conservatives. There is a big divide over when to cut spending and how, a significant pre-election battleground that raises issues about both judgement and values. Perhaps the contrast is too difficult to convey in accessible terms. Keynsian economics lacks populist slogans: "Even though we are in debt we must borrow more" does not equate easily with household economics and is unlikely to get them dancing in the streets. Margaret Thatcher had it easier when she declared in the early 1980s: "We did not spend more than we earned in Grantham and we will not do so as a country". It was nonsense, but accessible nonsense. I have heard Conservatives use similar words now, although Grantham itself does not get a look-in.

Still, without the accessible language every minister seems to be trying to highlight what Peter Mandelson has called the chasm. During their speeches Alistair Darling and Mandelson spent as much time on the Conservatives' policies as their own. Revealingly Darling claimed in relation to the government's response to the economic crisis that "when the history of the last year is written the country will be proud". He turned to the historians for comfort rather than the more immediate verdict of the voters.

While Operation Fightback is a clever idea there are signs of panic as they acknowledge the scale of the challenge. When governments are in a desperate position they tend to act desperately. The so-called policy announcements erupting around Brighton are not likely to get them or the rest of us very far. "Get the bankers!" is one common theme. I suspect the sudden, more aggressive tone is partly a damage limitation exercise. Ministers anticipate with good cause further anger from voters when the next round of bankers' bonuses are announced, packages that will be paid out as all the parties explain how they plan to cut the public sector. It is far too late, though, for the government to make this a defining theme. As the Lib Dems' Vince Cable asked at a fringe meeting in Brighton on the scope for a progressive coalition: "What has the government been doing on bonuses for the last year?" The fringe meeting revealed quite a lot of common ground between the Labour and Liberal Democrat speakers, but not on this issue.

For a government that once paid homage to bankers, and which was characteristically timid in pulling levers once it owned or partially owned several banks, there is not much mileage in shouting now.

The silly proposal to enshrine in law Labour's pledge to reduce the deficit also highlights desperation, rather than addresses it. I can see how they got to this particular proposition: "Let's show we have a plan to reduce the deficit! Let's prove our plan is less severe than the Conservatives! Let's make a law!" New Labour has always used parliament as a public relations exercise. In 1997 quite a few bills contained polices that needed no parliamentary approval. They were taken through parliament to make an insecure government seem busier than it really was. The proposed Fiscal Responsibility Act is too transparently in the same mould. What will happen to Darling if he fails to meet his target? Will he be sent to jail?

There is a lot of talk in Brighton about whether this is the equivalent of 1996, when a long-serving government was on the verge of a colossal defeat, or 1978 when a Labour government was about to be kicked out in the midst of an economic crisis. The truth is that the past is an unreliable guide. This is not 1996 or 1978. In the late 1970s the corporatist consensus was collapsing, creating clear space for Thatcherism, an ideological tide which both reflected and shaped the hunger for a break from failed economic policies. In 1996 the Conservatives had become impossible to lead, largely over Europe.

This is different. It might be worse for the governing party. It might be better. It will not be the same. Our poll yesterday placed the Conservatives on 38 per cent, suggesting they cannot be assured of an overall majority. The outcome of the next election is still not entirely clear, as Lord Mandelson argued in a speech that briefly brought the conference to life. On the whole, though, most of those attending the conference seem to fear the worst, a fearfulness which could easily become self fulfilling. Operation Fightback has a long way to go.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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