There is no doubt that the apparently under-resourced Labour election team scored an early victory in the election battle yesterday. The party’s efforts to destabilise David Cameron’s launch of his personalised billboards and slimmed down health policy were effective. In election battles, it doesn’t really matter that not all the £34bn identified by Labour researchers was committed Tory spending: it forced them into a state of confusion over marriage tax breaks (a totemic issue for backbenchers and the Daily Mail) and plans to provide more single rooms in hospital wards.
The Tory machine should have been better prepared than it was for such attacks. But unless Labour itself clears up its own strategy, it may win the odd skirmish, but it will neither win the war nor force a hung parliament. Rachel Sylvester’s account in today’s Times of how Ed Balls and Lord Mandelson have very different approaches to the election campaign has a ring of truth about it. Where Mandelson has shown himself keener to keep the Blairite torch of reform alive in his department – exemplified in recent reports on universities and training – while despite initiatives like yesterday’s on one-to-one tuition, Balls has preferred to exaggerate his differences on schools with his Tory opponent Michael Gove rather than trumpet key Labour reforms such as academies that Gove has been carefully hijacking.
It isn’t just a matter of narrowing the dividing lines, it is also about the ground on which Labour fights the Tories. The Pre-Budget Report was an opportunity to restore Gordon Brown’s mantle of fiscal responsibility by highlighting the extent of planned cuts as well as proposals to protect schools and NHS budgets. Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, would clearly have been more comfortable doing so. Instead, it was left to the Institute of Fiscal Studies to highlight what the Budget already contained. Instead of credit for honesty, the government was lambasted for its apparent shiftiness.
Labour needs to level with the electorate about its successes, failures and future plans. It cannot win an election spouting dubious dividing lines. Nor can it do so by ignoring the reformist agenda that helped win it three previous elections and which is crucial for middle class support in the marginals. There is certainly something pleasing about seeing David Cameron on the back foot for a day or two. But unless the government can articulate a stronger narrative of its own record, and a more credible sense of what it would do if it won a fourth term that appeals beyond the so-called core vote, Cameron will get his ‘year of change.’