Grasping The Nettle: On Labour’s Substance

Distinguised, innee?

“If I seem happy, it’s because I believe that we can show people, against the odds, and the odds have been against us, that we can come through.” This from Gordon Brown in a sympathetic interview with Ginny Dougary in today’s Times Magazine. This is very much Labour’s task in this election campaign and, as I noted last week, just getting to the point where people are willing to give this message a moment’s notice has been a considerable achievement for the party. Still, the polls in the last week have shown an increase in the Tory lead – still not the increase they need to form a majority government, but enough to be the largest party in a Hung Parliament.

Thus, perhaps, Lord Adonis’s plea to Liberal Democrat voters in yesterday’s Independent. It’s too early in the campaign to call for strategic voting, however, and any appearance that the Lib Dems are closet lefties will only help the Tories in seats in the south of England. Still, it formed at least part of the noises off – coming from both Brown and Lord Mandelson – that Labour might be willing to do business in a Hung Parliament. If, as the polls currently suggest, the Tories (to Cameron’s discredit) succeed only in becoming the largest party – and they aren’t achieving majority-winning swings even in the marginals – could the Lib Dems really prop up Labour? Surely not. This is an election campaign in which Labour must provide a strength of argument, not a sleight of hand.

The start of something like this came in the Mirror earlier in the week, but accusing the Tories of simply not knowing what they’re doing isn’t enough – although Philip Stephens’s analysis in the FT of the substance and strength necessary in an incoming government might, if reapplied to Brown’s clear strengths (even the marginals rate him higher than Cameron on all key leadership indices), could come to be allied with that ‘incompetent’ attack into a clear statement of the need for a Labour fourth term. Andrew Grice is right in today’s Independent to point out the naked self-interest of business leaders in supporting the Tory policy on curbing rises in National Insurance; Labour should waft the smell of that rat as much as they can – not least because the NI policy is so small, so trifling an issue, that it should be met not as a defensive scrap over a pre-announced policy, but as a chance to engage in substantive philosophical debate.

The manifestos are published next week – perhaps that’s what Labour are waiting for. But Dougary’s conclusion in that interview shows Labour the way forward: “[Brown] is a man of substance in a shallow age. So the question is – will we get the prime minister we deserve?” This election should not be a referendum on Gordon Brown – business trust Mandelson, voters like Darling, Miliband has sound, progressive ideas – but the party he leads has every chance to call Cameron’s Conservatives on shallow policymaking which is not informed by the values which have made Britain, if far from perfect and at times overly authoritarian, a better place over the last 13 years. It’s not worth squabbling over minutiae.