Steve Richards: Why Labour has a strong case to make

Brown needs to go for the Conservatives and encourage other ministers to as well

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Labour activists heading for their pre-election conference in Brighton this weekend have cause to be in a mood of giddy euphoria. The Government called it right during the recession. No bank collapsed. The economy is about to grow again. Before the recession, when the sun was shining, it fixed the roofs of decrepit schools and hospitals. Formerly run-down cities around the UK are as cool as any in Europe.

As an extra gift for Labour, the Conservatives call for public spending cuts during the recession, a stance that continues to place them to the right of the international mainstream. A former member of the Bank of England's monetary policy committee estimates that if David Cameron had been in power during the recession, unemployment would have reached five million. They should be partying the nights away in Brighton sensing that, even more than in the previous three elections, their time has come.

But of course, barely visible ministers, the few demoralised MPs who can be bothered to make the trip and the rest of the bewildered, gloomy remnants of the Labour Party are not heading for the south coast to celebrate. The talk is funereal. "I'm dreading it" was the most upbeat comment I got speaking to ministers and senior MPs in recent days. "It's going to be really depressing" was the view of a cabinet minister who fears this will be the last conference in which Labour gathers as the governing party for at least a decade, if not for much longer.

There are obvious reasons for the Government's unpopularity. A severe recession under the watch of an administration that claimed competence and stability as its distinctive pitch was always going to undermine its reputation, especially when the Prime Minister was the long-serving, swaggering Chancellor in the years leading up to the collapse of the financial markets.

Voters and the media get bored with governments and boredom turns easily to disdain. If Brown had been in his brief honeymoon period as Prime Minister, his trip to the US this week would have been hailed as a triumph. Instead, stories about a presidential snub were hysterically overplayed to the point that Obama's media team was in almost as much despair about parts of the British media as Brown's.

Brown has lost the media, although he and his underpowered Downing Street operation are partly to blame for this. At the same time Cameron and George Osborne have proven to be master spinners, much more effective at political choreography than the mid-1990s New Labour model on which they base their moves.

There are also bigger reasons for Labour's unpopularity, which is currently so deep that some senior figures refer to the party's calamitous defeat in 1983 as a relative triumph. The original New Labour "big tent" policy meant that the party attracted so many voters with contradictory aspirations that it was doomed to disappoint them all in the end and at the same time struggle to find a coherent identity.

The war in Iraq, support for lightly regulated financial markets and some of the so-called attacks on civil liberties were all indirect consequences of New Labour's desire to keep some of its new supporters happy. Brown's famous cock-ups since becoming Prime Minister, nearly all of them avoidable, are also explained partly by his fear of alienating any voter and newspaper. He acts tentatively as if a bulging big tent of supporters is still to be lost.

But Labour still has a better story to tell than it is telling and face opponents who are much weaker than they seem. This is where the issue of Gordon Brown's leadership becomes stark and why for the second year running it will be the theme of the conference. As a leader Brown faces four tasks next week. The tasks are a permanent challenge for any leader, but as he has not met them yet the need becomes more urgent. He must defend his previous record which the Tories have cleverly turned into one of recklessness, as if he blew every penny spent "when the sun was shining". Next, he must put the Government's case for what it did during the recession. Third, he must give hope for the future under Labour. Fourth, he needs to lead the attack on the Conservatives. This is not an impossible list of challenges. Any half-decent leader should be capable of rising to it even in a hostile media environment.

In terms of his past record, let's hear him invite George Osborne to explain which hospitals he would not have built, how many nurses and teachers he would not have recruited, how much less equipment he would have sent to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Osborne shrieks that the money should not have been invested a few years ago, so Brown needs to put in accessible language the consequences of such an approach. Accessibility is also the key to explaining the current recession. Vince Cable is much better. Cable has argued that during the Second World War, Churchill did not announce that, due to the size of the debt, he was giving up the fight in order to start repaying the loans. The Government's response to the near collapse of the banks is an economic war, and one that must not be abandoned too early. That's what Cable says with his limited experience of conveying a message through the media. Brown has been obsessed with the media for decades. Why cannot he frame a message?

Third, voters need to hear more about the future, not just vacuous phrases, but bold strokes backed up by policies, including a referendum on electoral reform on the day of the next election, an opportunity for the fractured non-Conservative vote to unite behind a groundbreaking measure. Fourth, he needs to go for the Conservatives and encourage other ministers to do so as well. Their inept reticence is astonishing. When John Major sought a fourth term for the Conservatives in 1992, his chairman, Chris Patten, was on the radio and television every time Neil Kinnock opened his mouth.

Brown has a case to make. Ironically this makes him more precarious. He has a case to make, but seems incapable of making it.

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