The coalition’s honeymoon is over, the Lib Dems have collapsed in the polls and Labour membership is up by more than 25,000. David Cameron’s weakness without a script has been exposed on his gaffe-ridden foreign tour and Michael Gove’s reputation has been seriously damaged.
But while Labour has exposed the coalition and scored some early hits, this is also a dangerous time for our party. There are three traps we must avoid in the coming months: one laid by Mr Cameron, one by the media and one that we risk laying for ourselves.
First, we risk falling into Mr Cameron’s trap by focusing our fire too much on the Liberal Democrats. Yes, they have ditched their manifesto and sold their principles for power — and done so on the backs of the unemployed, public sector workers and the poorest in our communities.
But while we must win back voters lost to the Lib Dems, we must not let the Tories off the hook. Even if Lib Dem ministers are wheeled out by Downing Street to defend the most unpopular decisions, we must not forget this is fundamentally a Conservative Government. The reason why the fiasco over school building cuts and the rushed Academies Bill is so damaging for the Government is that a senior Tory is in the frame. So Labour must focus its fire on the Tories, not just on the Liberal cannon fodder shielding Mr Cameron.
Second, Labour must avoid the media trap, encouraged by the coalition, that the first and most fundamental question in British politics is cutting the deficit.
This is what happened in the 1930s when the media and political elites, backed by the Governor of the Bank of England, insisted that the Government cut spending as quickly as possible. The economy spiralled into depression and we paid a heavy price. Yet this Government seems intent on repeating these deflationary mistakes, describing its decisions as unavoidable.
Labour needs strong leadership to make a credible argument against slashing public spending and raising VAT, which will increase unemployment and risk a double-dip recession. Labour must have the confidence to set out an alternative based on a more sensible timetable for deficit reduction, fairer tax rises and a plan to boost jobs and growth.
The third trap is the one we risk setting for ourselves. In the best of our 13 years in government, we dominated the radical centre ground of British politics, and we must not cede that territory now.
There is no doubt that Mr Cameron wants to use his alliance with the Liberal Democrats to achieve what he failed in opposition — to detoxify the Conservative brand in the public mind. At its heart, this will remain a neo-liberal government of the Right, but Mr Cameron will seek to present the coalition as dominating the centre ground, while caricaturing Labour as irrelevant, reactionary and retreating to the left.
That’s why all of us as leadership candidates, as we seek the votes of Labour and trade union members and the praise of leftwing think-tanks and newspapers, must beware of departing from the centre ground, by making unwise promises or losing touch with our constituents on issues such as crime.
But there are risks in the other direction too: the idea that to be centrist and credible we must return to safety-first triangulation and hanker after the approval of the rightwing press and conservative business groups. We’ve ridden that tiger before and it didn’t get us very far.
Neither should we fall for the myth that our biggest challenge is to “win back” middle-income voters. They largely stuck with us at the election while we lost the support of too many people on lower incomes who felt we were no longer on their side.
If we are to win back those voters, Labour must be clearer about what it stands for, bolder about whose side it is on and which vested interests it is prepared to tackle.
We must set out radical policies — such as a graduate tax to replace top-up fees and starting the top rate of tax at £100,000 — but make sure they are realistic and in touch with the aspirations, concerns and values of ordinary working people.
It’s no good simply being credible if we reach the next election and nobody can distinguish between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and our new leader; but it’s no good just being radical if we lose touch with the mainstream views of working people.
The Labour Party must not fall into the trap of thinking it needs to choose between the heart and the head. Our next leader must have the judgment, strength and experience to be both radical and credible. Otherwise we will play into the Tories’ hands — and languish in opposition.