It's been several months since I met anyone who thought that Labour could actually win the next election, and the latest ICM poll from the Guardian reinforces this view. 16 points down with only about 9 months to go until the election campaign must start - it ain't looking great. The Tories ahead as the party most trusted on the economy, the NHS, education. The NHS result suggests - at least for the moment - that Dave Cameron has managed to neutralise the extreme right anti-NHS rhetoric from some of his own MPs and MEPs, particularly the ludicrous Fox News rentamouth Daniel Hannan.
Labour will probably be able to claw back some of that 16-point deficit by making effective, substantiated attacks on whether the Tories can be trusted with key national institutions like health and the NHS. Daniel Hannan should be on Labour campaigning posters at the earliest opportunity - the guy is a national treasure; thank you Dan, for being so willing to talk bollocks at every opportunity. On education, Labour has made a lot of mistakes - the academies programme, obsessing with testing and support for faith schools among them. And it hasn't managed to get much credit for huge increases in spending. But shadow education secretary Michael Gove is an absolute open goal; an extreme right wing neo-con who would like nothing more than to dismantle the state system and have all the working class kids on council estates herded into boot camps. Again, he should be on Labour campaigning posters next year. And towering over all of these, on the economy George Osborne is the least convincing shadow chancellor of all time. Hopelessly addicted to soundbites, incapable of a coherent critique of government policy, and hiding an stunningly right-wing cuts agenda behind a 'progressive' facade.
In other words, the Tories are vulnerable on all three of the areas that the electorate is most interested in: the economy, health and education. However, so far the Labour critique of the Tories has been an unfocused assault on Tory 'cuts'. This is ineffective for two reasons: (a) the public finances deficit is so large that most people think cuts are necessary (and without big increases in taxation in the long run they are necessary), and (b) Labour is planning to cut almost as much as the Tories if re-elected (have a look at the public spending projections in the last budget!) Likewise, there has been rather unfocused attacks on the Tories' personal circumstances - for example the disastrous 'Tory toffs' accusation at the Crewe by-election last year. All pretty irrelevant to the main issues.
The best Labour strategy has to start with drawing 'clear red water' between themselves and the Tories - pledging to maintain spending on the majority of essential services while pushing up tax on the rich and closing tax haven loopholes (as the Obama adminstration is planning to do) to pay for it. The spending plans in Budget 09 should be ripped up and redrawn. There needs to be a clear articulation of the fact that spending cuts have a massive negative impact on poor households - as work by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pointed out. Where cuts are made, they should be in useless expenditure that we can well do without (replacing Trident, ID cards, etc.)
The attacks on the Conservatives should largely bypass Cameron - he's fairly popular and is the least weak link in the Tory chain. Instead, the idea that Danniel Hannan represents the 'real' or 'underlying' Conservative stance on the NHS should be ruthlessly propagated, along with critiques of Michael Gove's neo-conservatism (the idea being that the Americans managed to get rid of these f***ers, so why the hell should we have them here?) and the incompetence of George Osborne. The idea should be that Cameron isn't a bad guy, and quite moderate but that he is the prisoner of an extremist and unreformed party. This isn't a particularly hard idea to sell, as it's basically true - the number of 'progressives' in the Tory top brass can be counted on the fingers of one (slightly deformed) hand.
Granted, all this is still a tough wicket to bat on - particularly on the economy, where the electorate would be very justified in saying, "hold on - you guys are saying the Tories are incompetent, but you've just presided over the worst recession in 70 years just after proclaiming that 'boom and bust' had been abolished!" That's a very difficult point to answer, particularly as - as I see it anyhow - a lot of the (rather tepid) enthusiasm for the Tories reflects a desire to punish Labour as much as anything else. And I can understand that. Between them, Blair and Brown have been responsible for more b.s., distortion and obfuscation than any previous PM/Chancellor team. Even the hardcore garbage peddled by Thatcher and Howe at the height of monetarism didn't compare with the sheer professionalism of the Nu Labor spin machine... and if the next election draws the line under a very sorry and shameful period for the Labour Party, then perhaps so much the better.
My prediction then, is that a concerted and effective campaign against the Tories could close the gap between the two parties to maybe 8 to 10 points, but this is still enough for a working Conservative majority. They will probably end up with a majority of between 50 and 100 once the impact of boundary changes is taken into account. And then the real work begins... which is to rebuild the Labour party as a radical modern party with effective leadership, ready to sweep into power (given the right circumstances) in 2015. It will be an interesting 5 years - and I am looking forward to that more than to the dying cinders of this Labour govt. More on the prospects for Labour post-election in a bit.