A version of this post first appeared on The Times: Red Box
At the start of the great financial crisis, a month after the government bailed out the banking system, economic optimism in Britain was at minus 35. Last month it was minus 44.
The prime minister (our third in three years) recently stood in front of rows of police offers to promise the British people that he “would rather be dead in a ditch” than seek an extension to Brexit. He then sought an extension to Brexit. We are nine years into a Tory-led administration and those sunlit uplands are still out of view.
In a normal world the main opposition party ought to be fizzing with optimism. Instead it is the incumbent government that is trying to call an election and the Labour party that is finding ways to duck it.
A combination of Lib Dem, SNP and Tory votes today may mean they cannot duck it any further. It is time to drop the nostalgia for the exciting days of losing by just a little bit, as in 2017, and come up with a serious plan.
Labour needs to deal with three issues. The first is Brexit. The party seems spooked by the apparent popularity of the prime minister’s deal. But a poll last week showed support fall from 44 per cent to 25 per cent when people heard the four main UK parties’ messages about the deal. The party needs leadership, not fudge.
Labour needs to stop trying to do two dances to a single tune. Having lost three voters to remain parties for every one they have lost to a leave party, it seems clear which way they should go. That is made even clearer when you focus on the voters the party still has: Labour remainers are three times more likely to say that Brexit is a top issue for them and their family than Labour leavers.
A clear pro-remain second referendum position can help; anything else makes it harder.
Second, the party needs to sort out its economic narrative. Use Brexit to head off Tory attacks, while telling a story that makes sense to people who don’t spend their Wednesday evenings at Labour branch meetings.
With the Tories making lavish spending promises and analysts at Citi and Deutsche Bank coming out to say Labour may be the less risky option, the party should be in position to defang attacks on its credibility. However, ill-formed policies such as the Inclusive Ownership Fund make it hard to get a hearing from the parts of the business world that see single market membership as crucial.
Meanwhile the idea that a policy about the ownership structure of a mode of transport that accounts for 2 per cent of journeys is likely to swing many votes is implausible. Labour needs to reset, and offer change that benefits the majority, not play train-sets.
Third, it is hard to see how Labour can emerge victorious from a winter election without a lead on the NHS, yet — amazingly — last week a poll had the Tories ahead among likely voters. Labour needs to learn that simply attacking the government for public service failure is not enough. In two-party politics, if the other side goes down, you go up. In four-party politics, their problem can be someone else’s gain.
Beneath these issues is the fundamental question of leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has the worst approval ratings of any opposition leader ever — significantly below where he was in 2017. In that election he was able to rebound as the Tories floundered and the media threw him some alley-oops. He dunked on Jeremy Paxman in one leadership debate thanks to the breakthrough policy idea of not removing the Queen. This time people will expect more.
We live with the most volatile electorate in modern times. No one knows what is going to happen. There is huge scope for the polls to shift.
Labour can try to shift them by playing for time while it sorts out its campaign strategy. Proposing a vote of no confidence would at least increase scrutiny on the remain parties, and potentially shake things up during the two-week period where parliament can appoint another government. That extra delay might be long enough to sort out the campaign.
The alternative is to keep on as it is, rush headlong into the fight and make this election a test of Corbynism — with all its organisational and political troubles.
For the Lib Dem and SNP bet to work, Labour has to do better. The only way to avoid the kind of Brexit they oppose is to secure another hung parliament. That means either the Lib Dems succeed beyond their wildest dreams or Labour holds off the Tory threat in battleground after battleground. Simply being “a good campaigner” is not a plan to win an election.
James Morris is a former Labour pollster and managing director at Edelman