After watching Shergar win a 1981 Derby trial the racing journalist Richard Baerlein urged punters with the famous phrase "now is the time to bet like men". The same could now be said of Her Majesty's Opposition. Following one of the most discordant six months in recent political memory - the U-turn budget, the piquancy of George Galloway's by-election win, Leveson, bitterness over the banks and Lords reform - what is needed in response to this sense of drift is not so much the radicalisation of policy, but the radicalisation of the relationship with voters. Labour have been gifted a historic, yet urgent, opportunity to not merely attack a listing coalition, but to redefine the discourse of politics in Britain and re-engage with a cynical and suspicious electorate
Time is running out to reconnect with a public who are already responding to the calls of those outside the political establishment. At least there are a few signs of life from Ed Miliband and Ed Balls as the coalition appears to be disintegrating. But Labour's message has to be: "This is what we believe and this is what we want to do. We are not like the Conservatives and this is how we intend to prove it to you. The spin is there is no spin". There is a rare window in which policy and principle can dovetail.
A fundamental of the new discourse should be an openness about past mistakes, including admitting personal involvement in those mistakes. This goes against every instinct of post-Blairite orthodoxy, but it is to the unorthodox that people are now turning. (Incidentally, this week's sashaying up to Tony Blair would appear a significant misjudgment by Miliband). The public's desire for honesty is regularly underestimated and the Labour leadership does appear to be getting this message. PFI and private investment in the NHS and banking deregulation and are probably the biggest issues of this kind that need addressing.
The second fundamental should be to outline core principles for a future administration now rather than wait until 2014/15 - a brand of popular radicalism mainlined unmediated into the veins of the electorate. As the sense of economic and social dysfunction grows it creates an environment ripe for the opposition to talk, paradoxically, in terms that address both practical "pound in your pocket" matters and in the broadest concepts of the health of the nation. In a society of individuals, many individuals are waking up to what happens if they are abandoned by society. Some things are better run in the public interest and people are now seeing this beyond the prism of Thatcherism. There is an appetite for what could be called "pragmatic idealism".
Through simple and explicit promises to, for example, keep private money out of the NHS and policing, reform party funding, invest in infrastructure, technology and manufacturing with some help from publicly owned banks and eradicate tax avoidance, honesty could become the great political weapon it has always threatened to be. Labour could reclaim the dreaded phrase "common sense" that has traditionally been the province of right-wing columnists and talk radio hosts.
There is some scope for taking the moral high ground too - admittedly a dangerous habitat for politicians - particularly when the Conservatives appear to be heading for the valley below. With merely the graze of the cuts visible before the wound really opens up the coalition is only going to become more unpopular. The Lib Dems are already facing a catastrophe for surrendering their principles because the public see they have turned out to be little more than a cheap date for David Cameron.
Party funding provides a useful example of the need for a new direction. Instead of attacking the prime minister as having something to hide - something most of the public would assume whatever the truth of the matter - Miliband should be doing everything in his power to show he operates in a completely different world: either by promising to set a much lower level for individual donations or by making the case for fighting corruption through funding parties with public money. If the case can't be made now, it probably never will be.
Another open goal for Labour is the rare dissent of the right-wing media towards the government. If Labour took control of the agenda it would make it very difficult for most of the media to welcome, however reluctantly, the new political landscape. Newspapers that have spent weeks attacking the government would be cornered by an opposition who made commitments to deal with the problems that their readers care most about. Even something unexpected, such as promising to look at the feasibility of taking the railways back into public ownership would be difficult for the press to attack because after year-on-year price rises and the continual deterioration of services it has become an issue their readers get hot and bothered about.
A series of hapless public appearances and interviews has demonstrated to a weary public the Tories' strange brew of contempt and ignorance. But there is also a perception that Labour's leadership comes from the same political class, and although Miliband is not tainted by the stain of aristocratic or corporate privilege he does personify the inward looking cabal of PPE graduates that leaves people cold. Miliband can talk about "responsible capitalism" but until the majority of voters understand what he means in terms of policies that affect them, he is as ethereal as his rhetoric. Give the public something to vote for - policies - and they will vote. If Labour plays the long game it could be too late by 2015.
What happened with Muslim voters in Bradford West is an extreme case of desertion from the political establishment but it provides a handy demonstration to other single interest groups about what can be achieved relatively quickly, relatively easily. The prospect of angry GPs standings against coalition candidates at the next election should also focus minds on the urgent need to reach out in a new way.
If Labour act now voters might believe they actually mean it. With the assertion of strong principle-backed policies - something a limping coalition will find it awkward to counter - Labour could create a bond with the electorate, a rallying call to prevent the opposition sliding into ignominy as one of the great political chickens of the era. To rise to the challenge would not only be in Labour's interests, but in those of democracy itself. Voters don't expect miracles, but a touch of honesty and bravery - compared with the inutile atrophy we see now - could be a winning combination.
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