You can count them off on the calendar. As Labour gathers in Brighton this morning, just 222 days remains until Thursday 6th May 2010, the most likely General Election date. How often the gathered Labour tribe will be told they are wasting their time; that there is nothing to do but wait for a Cameron Coronation.
So everybody has written off the 200 days of governing power which Labour has before the campaign begins. Yet there is no reason why these should be days of stagnation as a battered Parliament limps to a close. Claims that Whitehall is already on stand-by simply ignore how often those 200 days involve massive decisions – from the priorities for public spending at home, to global negotiations on climate change and nuclear disarmament – that will last long beyond May’s election, whoever wins. They could just offer Labour’s best chance of making a fight of the election too.
Peter Mandelson’s argument that Labour must campaign as underdogs is not just an acceptance of political reality. It should often mean the opposite campaign strategy to that of 2001 and 2005. Then Labour was risk-averse, always kicking long-term choices like NHS spending and pensions into the post-election long grass.
How far it can kick that habit may determine how much impact these 200 days can have.
Labour’s strategic interest now is in opening up difficult issues to public scrutiny, so as to sharpen a real choice between the political parties.
Firstly, the spending debate is only just beginning. If all sides will acknowledge the need for some cuts, choices about what to cut will be much more difficult. Taxation has barely been mentioned. The closer that Alistair Darling comes, in the pre-budget report and budget, to a full spending round, the more that Labour can influence the long-term agenda.
Secondly, enormous global issues which will have an enduring impact. The Copenhagen climate talks offer a last chance to get a global deal on track on time. Next Spring’s Washington disarmament summit should be used to trade Trident renewal in a something-for-something multilateral disarmament deal, easing the fiscal pressure at home too.
Thirdly, Labour’s actions can often also have an enduring impact on major issues beyond the electoral frontline. Beyond spending cuts and (expensive) schools reforms, the Conservatives have almost no policy agenda to speak of. The answer is not a hyperactive blizzard of initiatives. Through a frank account of its own legacy, Labour could frame one central policy choice in each department, and set the direction of travel on issues from housing to transport; universities to social care where decisions needed soon will endure for generations.
All parties backed legislation to link the state pension to earnings after 2012. But would that survive a Tory ‘age of austerity’? Labour should bring the link forward to 2010: redistributing pension tax relief and freezing inheritance tax thresholds for five years could finance this and reduce public debt too. It should commit to the idea floated in the Green paper of funding social care for all by a compulsory hypothecated user charge. With everybody rhetorically for a ‘new politics’, Labour should let the people decide on the voting system in a referendum and back a citizens’ convention to set out on the road to a new constitutional settlement.
Some may think a focus on ‘entrenching change’ sounds undemocratic. That misses the point. There is little Labour could do in the next six months which a future Tory majority could not reverse. What can be demanded is that a public argument should be made to reverse them. Often, the Tory choice will be to close down issues, to rule out more radical moves for a Parliament at least, or (as over the 50p tax rate) to try to say nothing at all. Where they do want to put up an alternative, the electoral choice will become clearer.
Yet Labour never discusses its ‘legacy’ now. It used to do so openly. Douglas Alexander warned in 2004 that George Bush’s re-election showed that Bill Clinton had done too little to entrench change. That argument matters much more now. Economic and political crises has made New Labour’s claim to a legacy much more fragile. This has changed the right’s debate. For two years, David Cameron persuaded his party to accept what had changed. Now, the right feels its argument to shrink the state is back on top, even though this is hardly a repeat of 1978-79 when that is the ideology which caused this recession. Nobody can be certain where the centre of political gravity will end up.
So focusing the next 200 days on re-entrenching a progressive Labour legacy would be far from defeatist. By sharpening the electoral argument about what is at stake, it could yet be Labour’s best chance to fight back.
* This piece is extracted from Sunder Katwala's Fabian essay "How to use 200 days in power", published in the Fabian Review conference special.