There is a moment in every parliament when we reach that point when it feels nearer to the next election that it does from the last one. The exact dates don’t matter, it’s more an intuition, a sense that the tectonic plates have shifted.
For Labour this moment is now.
They phoney war has ended. There are no more sandbags to bayonet and no more car tyres to hop through. Basic training is over; full and bloody political combat is about to ensue.
The Conservative have declared war. They are upping the ante, going for Ed Miliband personally and will do so relentlessly. They need to arrest Labour’s march in the polls now before the growing sense that this is a one-term government becomes ingrained.
This next couple of weeks will set the scene on what will be the longest general election campaign we have ever known. We are seeing a flavour of it with the Tories new attack slogan, ‘Labour isn’t learning’.
But there’s something else. David Cameron and Nick Clegg share a common dilemma. They have failed to please large parts of their base and will each face the electorate in 2015 with a chequered record. They need to get credit for, as they see it, working together in the national interest. Their entire careers are now forever shaped (scarred?) by the hard and unpopular decisions they have taken in government.
They resent Labour taking the credit for being “the other lot” voters will turn to when they are sick of “the government”. Both men will argue that they have been left to pick up the crockery after Labour’s years in office and it is they who have the strength of character to lead the country rather than Ed Miliband and a Labour party that remains, as they see it, in denial about the scale of the financial challenges the country faces.
The challenge for Ed and the party this week is to respond with specifics. There isn’t scope to come out with a new fluffy abstract concept like “predistribution” or “predator capitalism” or any other worthy but wonky ideas in his leader’s speech tomorrow. The party needs, as RH Tawney once put it, “a hard cutting edge”.
A 4G spectrum auction to invest in social housing, a measure Ed Balls argued for yesterday, is exactly the kind of specific and realistic measure Labour needs to convince voters that the party is fit to govern.
This has got to be the shape of things to come from now on. The party’s opinion poll lead is like a supermarket chicken pumped full of water. It looks bigger and juicier than it really is. In reality, the party still has huge negatives to deal with, particularly around trust, leadership and economic credibility.
Having lost the political initiative these past few months, the government, both parts of it, is desperate to try and frame the debate around Labour’s fitness to govern. The best response to that is a series of clear, unambiguous, hard-edged policy ideas.
For make no mistake, the long and bloody road to 2015 begins here.