Last night's substantial defeat in Crewe should be a cause for Labour renewal not introspection. The crass anti-toffs campaign will be seen by the media as having played a big part. In reality, the result echoes the local election results earlier this month. Labour is having the sort of mid-term blues that the Tories regularly experienced in the late eighties.
But despite the extraordinary hubris of Team Cameron in preparing for a landslide, as revealed by Fraser Nelson this week, Labour still has a much more relevant programme than the Conservatives. This week's paper on school discipline demonstrated a practicality that is absent from Tory thinking on the subject; and despite the excitability of some pundits, there is little substantive difference between the two parties on school standards and structure. On health, the Tories have become a cipher for the BMA, while Labour is advancing a decidedly patient-focused agenda.
However, the next election is unlikely to be won or lost on those issues. Labour's unprecedented school building and hospital modernisation programme, its higher standards in schools, better paid teachers and doctors, have all been discounted by the media; and despite often positive personal experiences, there is a disconnect in the public mind between the genuine improvements they see in local public services and perceptions of the national systems. So, while more should be done by MPs to claim credit for these improvements, it will not be enough.
What will matter are the economy and a sense that the government has not run out of steam. At present, the polls suggest severe economic gloominess and a mood that it is 'time for a change'. Labour recovery - which is not the impossibility imagined by the media; Major won in 1992 after a far bigger by-election defeat for his party in mid-Staffordshire in 1990 - will depend both on economic recovery (and a sense that the cost of fuel and food is stabilising) and on a recovery of ideas and nerve at the centre. It also demands a much better selling of those ideas and what the Government is about. It is certainly true that there is little public sense of any of this today. But with a general election two years away - and the Tories having a weaker starting point in seats than Labour had after 1992 - there is still a lot to play for.