IN all likelihood, there are only 10 more weeks before the Prime Minister fires the starting gun on the General Election campaign proper. With the opinion polls broadly indicating a 12-point lead for the Conservatives, Gordon Brown will need a powerful strategy to close this gap – so what would it take?
Labour needs to show two commodities as a matter of urgency; an unmistakably bold policy offer for the future, and an acute insight into – and empathy with – the needs and anxieties of the British public.
If Labour can summon up a manifesto which resonates intensely with the mood of the times, then it is just possible that people may set aside the second order issues of fashion and stylistics which have helped the Conservatives and hobbled the Government in the past few years.
Economic recessions are always bad for incumbent administrations and public opinion is beginning to settle. As such, Gordon Brown needs to fight to be heard and find the airtime to juxtapose his platform with the Conservative agenda, and show that this election is a choice rather than a referendum on the Government.
Labour must remind the electorate why they received support in the past three elections and, more importantly, show a tangible plan for the future success of Britain and its citizens. On the key issue of the times, Labour needs to make the banking industry put the public interest first; it should have been Britain that led the way ensuring that this most profitable set of elite institutions pays back the money it used to stay in business, money lent to it by the ordinary taxpayer. If the Americans can institute a "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee" on their banks, then so can we.
This revenue then needs to be invested in policies that the public really care about: greater access to convenient GP services on weekends and evenings; higher calibre school teaching; decent road and rail services able to withstand inclement weather; jobs and free higher education for veterans who have served their country in the Armed Forces. In short, Labour needs to advocate the virtues of public investment and the powerful returns it can yield for society as a whole.
There are major challenges facing this region that require an active approach to public investment. Take, for instance, the issue of economic policy.
Last week, I spoke at a conference on regeneration held at the National Media Museum in Bradford, a city crying out for a revival of its economic fortunes. Here is an example of a great city that, if left entirely to the free market, could fall below the critical mass of retail and housing facilities needed for the city centre to thrive.
Public policy and public money on a significant scale is needed to leverage in private investment and coax life back into its heart.
The debate being played out on the national stage about protection for – or cuts in – public investment is deeply relevant here. Bradford's fate rests very much in the hands of national and local government, which could either re-lay the foundations for success or neglect the city for the decade ahead. Bradford's story is the same as so many of our high streets, towns and communities.
Transport links, affordable city centre homes, a choice of good
schools, decent shopping and leisure facilities, improved security, popular events and incentives for companies to locate all take public money to start the ball rolling. In turn, new jobs and growth are generated, which could yield many multiples of the seedcorn money spent at the outset.
Gordon Brown must loudly and clearly make the case in favour of the virtues of public investment. There are many who are waiting to agree with him, if only they could see the self-assured bravery of this argument laid out with force. The PM needs to reiterate the tenet of Labour's Clause Four which states that "by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone".
This describes in a nutshell the policy approach the Government must communicate as its unique distinguishing characteristic. The reason the NHS is so popular is because it embodies this concept of collective community security. Indeed, the reason the economy avoided outright depression is because the public purse provided a safety net to protect against the collapse of banking market excesses.
The public understand the different political philosophies on offer but are jaded and turned off by the masking of core principles. Labour needs to remind the electorate of why its mission remains as relevant today as it was a decade ago. As long as wealthy elites and established vested interests exploit their privileged position at the expense of ordinary working families, then there is a reason for Labour to be elected.
Chris Leslie was the Labour MP for Shipley from 1997-2005. He is now director of the New Local Government Network.