There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought about what the Labour Party needs to do to win the next general election.
One is that it has to do relatively little to get back into government other than rely on the growing unpopularity of the Tories, while the other is that that it won’t regain the trust of the people unless it demonstrates that it has radically changed
The two points of view roughly correspond to the positions adopted in the period after 1992 when the “one more heave” approach personified by John Smith contended with the “modernising” tendency represented by Tony Blair.
Mr Smith’s sudden death and Mr Blair’s subsequent elevation to the leadership settled that one, but, two decades on and with the party once more seeking a way back into power, the issue has recurred.
The first point of view was forcefully expressed in a Daily Telegraph article this week by Stefan Stern, a management writer and visiting professor at Cass Business School, who exhorted readers to “do the maths.”
“Labour won 258 seats at the last general election with 29pc of the vote, which was their second worst result in 70 years. They should do better next time. Governing parties, on the other hand, rarely get more votes at the election following a term (or terms) of office,” he wrote.
“So here’s the thing: it is actually going to be quite hard for Labour not to be the largest party after the next election.
“If Labour is the largest party after the election, perhaps comfortably so, we can expect the Lib Dems to enter coalition talks with them. That was the principle that lay behind the Lib Dems’ approach three years ago. “
Stern’s logic seems impeccable. But the opposing point of view was just as cogently expressed by the YouGov pollster Peter Kellner in a recent article in Prospect magazine.
“Labour’s real challenge is to reassemble the Blairite coalition that swept the party to power in 1997. That coalition included people from across Britain’s economic and social spectrum. The party reached parts of the electorate that had seemed out of bounds,” he wrote.
“To reassemble an election-winning coalition of voters next time, these are the people Labour must win back. This means rejecting the language of ideology, class and social division, and reviving the appeal of national purpose.”
As I noted in this column following May’s local election results, Labour has by no means succeeded in doing this, with the South in particular remaining stubbornly resistant to the party’s message.
It is partly for this reason, I suspect, that within Labour leader Ed Miliband’s inner circle, Mr Kellner’s point of view currently holds more sway than that of Mr Stern.
As has been fairly clear from the recent carefully co-ordinated statements by Mr Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, the party leadership is well aware of the fact that it has a credibility problem with certain types of voters, and is working hard to persuade them it has genuinely changed.
Mr Balls’ announcement earlier this month that Labour would keep within George Osborne’s spending limits for its first year in office if it wins in 2015 echoed a similar pledge made by Mr Blair ahead of the 1997 election.
And Mr Miliband’s subsequent speech signalling new limits on longer-term welfare payments was designed to show the party is prepared to get tough on benefit claimants.
Will it work in persuading the public that the Labour of 2013 is essentially a different party from the one which, in many voters’ estimations, allowed public spending to get out of control in the Blair-Brown years?
Well, it’s a start, but Mr Miliband knows there is still much to do, and won’t be hoodwinked by Daily Telegraph columns telling him he is almost certain to be the next Prime Minister, however impeccable their logic.
In the run-up to polling day in 1997, Mr Blair continually warned his party against complacency, even when the whole world could see he was heading for a landslide.
In that respect, at least, Mr Miliband will be no different.