Saturday, April 10, 2010

Not a good start for Labour

And so at last they're off, as the race finally gets under way in earnest in what promises to be the most pivotal UK general election since 1997 and the closest since 1992.

Not that that is saying much. Labour's victories in 2001 and 2005 were moreorless pre-ordained from the start, the only real interest being in whether the Tories would do well enough to save first William Hague's, then Michael Howard's leadership.

It's a different story this time round. This election is David Cameron's to lose, and if he does lose it, he will swiftly go the way of those two predecessors.

Labour, by contrast, is having to come from so far behind that, already, it is giving the impression that a hung Parliament and a deal with the Lib Dems is the best it can hope for.

The leaders' photocalls on Tuesday in the wake of Gordon Brown's visit to the Palace were nothing if not revealing, in terms of the subliminal messages each of the parties were trying to get across.

There was the Prime Minister outside Number Ten, flanked by his entire Cabinet as if to say: "We know you don't like Gordon, but we're a team, not a solo act."

Then there was Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, flanked by Vince Cable in acknowledgement of the fact that the 66-year-old Treasury spokesman is easily the most compelling reason to vote for the party on 6 May.

And most tellingly of all, Mr Cameron, surrounded not by a frontbench team which is largely distrusted by the public, but by a group of fresh-faced candidates - although it was not long before his own star turn, wife Sam, joined him on the campaign trail.

So what of the story so far? Well, it has not been an especially good start to the campaign for Labour.

First off, the government was forced to shelve a series of measures it had previously championed, including the proposed regional ITV news pilot in this region which the Tories have perplexingly vowed to scrap if they win.

Most ironic was the scrapping of the Bill to provide for a referendum on the voting system - on the very day Labour sought to highlight its constitutional reform credentials in an obvious play for Lib Dem support.

Mr Clegg was rightly contemptuous of this. After all, if Labour had acted rather sooner on its 1997 promise on electoral reform, the wretched Bill would hardly have run out of time.

Equally clumsy and cynical was yesterday's foray by Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, advising Lib Dem voters in marginal seats to vote tactically for Labour.

The fact that Labour is already reduced to begging for Lib Dem votes this early on in the campaign speaks volumes for the government's lack of confidence in its own message.

But Labour's biggest difficulties this week came with the concerted assault by business leaders over its planned 1p rise in National Insurance.

Mr Brown’s response – that some of Britain’s shrewdest business minds had allowed themselves to be “deceived” by the Tories, was hardly an exercise in how to win friends and influence people.

This week has been but an hors d'oeuvre. The main course of this election campaign will be the three TV debates between the three leaders which are due to begin next week.

Mr Brown only agreed to take part in the debates because he is the underdog, and they are clearly crucial to his hopes of a comeback.

The Prime Minister has to do what Tony Blair predicted he would do long ago - and land a "big clunking fist" on his Tory opponent.

If he can, he is back in the game. If not, short of a Tory scandal or implosion, it is hard to see where else a Labour revival is going to come from.

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