So, where do we go from here? We should perhaps start by pointing out that Labour under Tony Blair performed abysmally in the local elections of both 2000 and 2004, yet the party bounced back sufficiently to win general elections in 2001 and 2005. However the truth is that the government has not been making it easy for the electorate to vote Labour with any enthusiasm. On the doorstep the divide between the concerns of core Labour voters and those of a PR fixated cabinet have never seemed wider.
In fairness though, the history of Labour Governments was ever thus. Since the 1920s the story goes something like this: Labour supporters are near euphoric when victory is achieved there is then a period of hard slog as the party faces up to the harsh responsibilities of being in government. The party then accuses the leadership of betrayal and the leadership accuses the party of ingratitude. Supporters then become disillusioned which leads to defeat at the polls. We then experience a long period of Tory Government before the next outbreak of euphoria and so on and so forth. The truth is that Labour has been far better at defeating itself than the Tories have ever been – the recent 10p tax fiasco is clear evidence of this. After an unprecedented eleven straight years in power many of Labour’s own members want it to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic; to be a party that proudly honours its past whilst not neglecting to shape both its and the nation’s future; to champion the state whilst being part of the market; to tackle poverty but also support aspiration.
Gordon Brown stood for the leadership of the Labour party on a platform that argued that the renewal that was undertaken in order to gain power needed to be repeated if Labour was to keep power. The fact is that by successfully occupying the centre ground, by modernising and reaching out beyond its own activists Labour ended up turning the Tories into a replica of what it used to be itself – a party with a narrow base, a party obsessed about the wrong things and a party seen as old fashioned and out of touch. David Cameron understands all of this and it is why he has been busy in attempting (with, as last night’s results indicate, some considerable success) to re-brand and re-position today’s Tory party. Conservatives have finally woken up to the fact that in order to be taken seriously they will need to be seen as the future, to be heralded as the bearers of hope and the deliverers of change.
The problem with all of this is takes Cameron and his party into unchartered waters. The history of the Tory party is centred on the core belief that government and politics can't actually change people’s lives all that much. Tory philosophy has long rejected any talk about the strength and virtue of common endeavour or about the need to ensure that wealth and opportunity are placed in the hands of the many not the few.This is why the real challenge to the continuation of the pursuit of a progressive agenda comes not from a resurgent Tory party but from the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist within the Labour party itself.
If Labour is to secure an unprecedented fourth term then it must set about renewing itself, its message and its organisation. A renewed party needs to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it also needs to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. Telling the electorate that things are much better than they were in 1997 simply does not cut any mustard anymore (in fact it hasn’t done for several years). Public services in Britain are in the process of being revived but there are still some Labour MPs, councillors and members who wish not revival but reversal. After the 2005 election Tony Blair committed a third term Labour government to delivering further improvements in our public services; a Brown-led government would be wise to review this decision - not because it is the wrong direction in which to proceed, but because it is a four, possibly five-term objective.
So if a fourth term is to be achieved Labour must continue with its progressive reform package, stop fretting about the opinion polls but above all it must not (as so often it has in the past) end up defeating itself.