Tuesday 29 September 2009

Gordon draws the election battle lines

Gordon Brown had to give it his all in today's Labour conference speech. He was much more relaxed than he has been for several years, and his speech had a thematic fluency and flow that has too often been lacking in Brown speeches of late.

Starting with a well-paced reminder of Labour's greatest hits, he posited the challenges and choices that face him and the country in an unusually long attack on the Tories. "Times of great challenge mean choices of great consequence," was a good line, and helps underline exactly how he dealt with the economic crisis in ways that the Tories would not have done. He also made a good effort to link the ideology of the collapse to that of the Conservatives. This was a sharp and fierce attack on the judgments of David Cameron and his front bench team, and sets the scene for a strong counterattack in the months ahead.

But what is more important to voters is knowing what Labour would do in the next five years, if it were re-elected. And the idea that this would be the first Labour government of the post-recession age was a good one. Linking himself to British innovation and a green economy helped give that legs (even with a crowd-pleasing nod to the Post Office). Pledging to increase school spending brought clarity after Ed Balls's recent announcement, which was always about recycling existing funds.

But it was his plans for tough love and an attack on anti-social behaviour that could make most difference. State homes for single mums and the new family intervention project with 50,000 families could, if it is allowed to work, make a huge difference to crime, education and welfare bills, and the evidence from Dundee is compelling. Both cancer test maximum waits and more personal care were both provide strong vote-winning policies.

Brown's embrace of alternative voting is welcome and long overdue, and making a commitment to a referendum in the next parliament could put Cameron on the spot. With plans for further Lords reform and parliamentary recalls, there is real substance on the political reform agenda.

Overall, a clearer embrace of the mainstream majority is welcome. It needs to be followed through in a new language from all ministers, so that voters see very clearly the choices on offer at the next election. There needs to be a much sharper link to public service reform in the months ahead - but reform which recognises that minimum standards and choice go together.

In the end, this was a well-judged speech by Brown which laid out the choices better than he has done before and which showed how wrong the commentariat are to write him off. He may be criticised for too many spending pledges, but provided they are matched by genuine savings elsewhere, they will have credibility. By giving the level of detail he has on policy, he also presents a challenge to Cameron next week to do the same. The speech was never going to be a game-changer. But there is more than enough here to start making the battle a serious contest again. And that's as much as could expect.

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