Why Labour's blip could turn into a slump

From a talk given by Matthew Taylor, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, at a Labour Renewal Network meeting

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No-one thought Labour would be behind in the polls by the time of its annual conference. So maybe those who see the polls as a blip are right. But there is another view, namely that Labour has gone through the electoral equivalent of the Tories' Black Wednesday disaster.

No-one thought Labour would be behind in the polls by the time of its annual conference. So maybe those who see the polls as a blip are right. But there is another view, namely that Labour has gone through the electoral equivalent of the Tories' Black Wednesday disaster.

Public disenchantment with this Government has been in the air for a long time. More concretely, the clue to Labour's vulnerability was to be seen in the unprecedented gap between the Government's poll ratings and how it performed in real elections.

But many Labour people seem in denial. Despite the Prime Minister's well-judged message of responsiveness and responsibility, there has been the return this week of something largely absent from Labour conferences of the last decade. It is the tone of self-righteousness - the sense that Labour is right but the voters are too right-wing or too ignorant to realise.

The hard thing for Labour politicians is to recognise how strong is public disenchantment. Voters see Labour on a bad day and conclude that this is a government driven by the desire for power rather than the pursuit of values, a government that doesn't seem to trust people to make their own choices, to run their own services, a Government of people who don't even seem to like each other very much.

Of course, there is a completely different story of Labour pursuing social justice, pushing power away from Whitehall through devolution and of a party with apparently little ideological or substantive policy difference. But in politics, you have to deal with what the people believe not what you would like them to believe.

Even if the blip is really a slump, the conclusion is not that New Labour is doomed but that it has to undertake a fundamental re-engineering of its political strategy and the way that strategy is communicated. It is no good hoping that economic competence or delivery of election pledges will be enough. A failure to deliver loses votes but delivery doesn't win them - people do not vote out of gratitude.

Instead, the starting point should be a return to the founding politics of New Labour. In 1995, Tony Blair described the central aim of his project as being to restore the bond between social-democratic values of economic equality and social justice, and progressive liberal values of democracy, empowerment and freedom. Beyond specific policies, this was also about avoiding the tendency of social democrats in power to end up as merely mechanistic reformers and to recognise the importance of moral reform - a politics that changes people's hearts as well as their material circumstances.

This was always a much richer account of new politics than the passionless sociology of the Third Way. It is the left's oft-repeated complaint that the Government is unwilling to claim credit for what it is actually doing - for example, redistributing income, choosing services over tax cuts, putting the environment at the heart of tax policy. As we saw in the speeches of both Brown and Blair, this is changing. A year ago, the Government said that it rejected the politics of tax-and-spend. On the same issue Gordon Brown is now calling for Labour to lead a national debate.

Party activists will be delighted at the return to social-democratic themes, but the attempt to challenge party prejudices by incorporating progressive liberal traditions appears to have been abandoned. The scale of the threat is remarkable, evidenced just this week by John Prescott dismissing Lib-Laberry and PR, and the ugly sight of the trade union block being relied upon to defeat attempts to democratise the second chamber.

It is time for "Blairites who mean it" to stand up and be counted. For the last five years, many MPs and activists have allowed themselves to become the new Establishment. But by rediscovering their critical edge, it is they who can provide a renewed narrative for this government.

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