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THE TIME FOR CAUTION HAS PASSED
Whatever happens at the polls today, Gordon can win the next election. But he needs to get back to his true Brownite self and a bold agenda of fairness



Sunder Katwala

The Brown government risks being written off before its first anniversary. But, as I argue in the spring issue of the Fabian Review, the greatest frustration for Labour supporters is just how winnable the next election could still be were both government and party to demonstrate a strategy and appetite to win it.

Frustration one: there is no great mystery about the prime minister's core vision, though voters could be forgiven for not knowing that. The argument that links policy together - that Britain should compete on high value skills, not low wages, by unlocking the talent of all to "race to the top" in the global economy - is true, but too technocratic.

This must be translated into a public political argument about what Labour wants to change about Britain, around which a winning electoral coalition can be rebuilt. That should involve mobilising progressive support for the cause of ending child poverty while showing how the argument that every child deserves a decent start and the chance to fulfil their potential can resonate across Middle England too.

The challenge is not just one of communication but of political strategy too. Gordon Brown recognised last spring that "more of the same" could not defeat the call of "time for change" next time. He was right. But what three key points of "change" could voters point to if asked at the end of his first year as prime minister in June?

Frustration two: the party's internal debate is badly stuck. The left worries that countering "southern discomfort" would cost Labour's soul; the Blairite right flank that appeasing Guardian-reading liberals would lose the election. Labour won't recover by debating which voters it doesn't want.

There is no genuine chance of any leadership challenge, nor should there be. Those (on left or right) who lacked the support to put up a candidate when there was a vacancy last year should shut up when it comes to stoking media speculation about something which is not going to happen.

But we need a more outward-looking and open debate about Labour's core mission.

Few - if any - of John Hutton's cabinet colleagues agreed with the content and tone with which he celebrated "huge salaries" and people who "climb without limits" at the top. Yet only Hazel Blears, concerned about "social apartheid" between rich and poor, offered any corrective. Those in the cabinet's Brownite centre who know why narrowing the gap matters have shied away from getting out in front of the prime minister; perhaps sometimes still acting more as advisers than ministers. They should realise that if only a "No Turning Back" Blairism is articulated, the call for change will be lost by default.

Frustration three: why is Labour's instinct still to cautiously hoard political capital? What for? Caution was partly a successful New Labour strategy of quiet advance; partly, too, a neurotic under-confidence which could not recognise when arguments were being won. (Again, that argument for greater confidence was perhaps best made by Gordon Brown himself, in the 2003 Labour conference speech, where he told his party to have confidence that its principles made it "best when we are boldest ... best when we are Labour". As our Fabian Review cartoonist, Teal, suggests, with a nod to Vicky's Supermac, the PM is best at his Brownest too.)

Eleven years in, the calculus of risk must now change decisively. Whether the Labour government has two or seven years left in office, its strategic goal must be to embed and "Tory-proof" a progressive Labour legacy against future political change. That means ditching tactical triangulation, still too often the default mode of this government.

It was necessary in the 1990s to show that Labour had changed. But cleaving in 2008 to the tactics of 1997 amounts to an offer to fight the general election on David Cameron's terms, and is to fail to understand New Labour's success in converting the Conservatives to progressive language and aspirations, at least.

The Conservative leader now wants voters to think there is little difference between the parties. That election would simply become a referendum on the incumbents, not a choice between alternative governments. Labour must ensure that choice is clear.

So what needs to change? Get the Downing Street machine in place, but cancel Number 10's subscription to PR Week. Leave Hillary Clinton's pollster Mark Penn in Washington. Then make a fairer Britain the defining mission: take risks for the cause of child poverty; make clear what climate change demands of us all; go for electoral reform and a written constitution. If not now, when?

So, above all, let Gordon be Gordon and have the prime minister articulate the argument which brought him into politics, and with which he shifted the centre-ground on public spending and taxation.

Before the 10p tax band row, few in the Labour party realised that the Tory party and rightwing press cared so much for the low paid. So let the next budget test this opportunism, helping the low paid instead of the wealthiest 6% who would benefit from the flagship Tory inheritance tax pledge. Then let the British public judge whether the Conservatives have re...



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