Leading article: Labour has a route map, but does it have enough time?

Fighting back will be a monumental challenge

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Where Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour conference in Manchester last year was personal, this year's address in Brighton was pugnacious. The attacks on the Conservatives came thick and fast, particularly on their supposed lack of economic competence. And, in fairness, the Prime Minister did have a strong case to make about the hesitant and confused manner in which the Tories reacted to last year's global financial meltdown.

In other ways, however, the speech served to emphasise the now familiar flaws in the Prime Minister's own character. He failed to convey any acceptance of glaring past mistakes of his own, from the light touch policy on bank supervision to allowing the public finances to become excessively reliant on the revenues from financial services. And he offered no detail on where Labour would cut spending to back up his assertion that Labour would be more humane when it came to tackling the yawning budget deficit.

The focus of the speech on crime and disorder was also unconvincing. It is understandable that the Prime minister and his advisers felt the need to return to the anti-social behaviour agenda given the palpable sense of public outrage over the appalling deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter. But that section of the speech nevertheless came across as rather forced, given that Mr Brown has paid so little attention to this subject in the past.

The policy response he laid out – various innovations such as "family intervention projects" and "police action squads" – also felt depressingly knee-jerk. As the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, argued in his own conference speech yesterday, the problem is not an absence of tools for the police and local authorities when dealing with problem families, but the failure of the authorities to use those powers.

Elsewhere, there was some substance to please progressives, such as the commitment to reform the voting system and the House of Lords. There were also signs of a retreat on biometric passports, with the announcement of a limit on the amount of material that will be required from the public. The idea of using the facilities of the Post Office network to provide more banking services is also sound. Done properly, this could inject some much needed competition into the private retail banking sector and also help reinvigorate isolated rural communities.

In all, this was not a game-changing speech (so few really are) but it at least provides a route map for Labour to make a proper contest of the next election. A twin strategy is gradually emerging – highlighting the Tories' lack of credibility, particularly on the economy, and attempting to rebuild the fractured New Labour coalition by making a fresh pitch for alienated middle-class support.

This ambition is welcome. It is not in the country's interests to see Labour retreat into a damage-limiting core vote strategy. The problem is that, as the polls show, Labour starts from such a low base of popular support. A poll in this newspaper earlier this week showed them level with the Liberal Democrats. And given that a general election must be held by next June at the latest, Labour has only a very limited time in which to turn things around.

Mr Brown's speech and this week's conference have probably done enough to give Labour the space to mount a fightback. But at the moment it is looking like a harder fight than any the party has experienced for 20 years.

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