Lord AshcroftBy Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC

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Dear Ed,

It is evidently the season for offering you well-intentioned
advice. Since I spend rather a lot of time finding out how the voters see
things, I thought you might appreciate a view from the other side of the fence.

Most of the advice you have been getting is pretty good.
David Blunkett is right that Labour must do more than articulate grievance.
John Reid is right about the need to move beyond protest towards offering
solutions. Tom Harris is right about the importance of showing you are the
Labour Party, not the Benefits Party. Peter Mandelson is right that Labour
should not try to duck the major structural challenges and choices facing
Britain. Alan Milburn is right that people will soon want to know what Labour
is for, not just what it is against. And above all, Tony Blair is right that
Labour must move out of its “comfort zone” and offer leadership if it is to

Even before these helpful Blairite interventions, you must
have known that much of the Labour share in current polls is partly default
opposition a mid-term government with hard decisions to make and no money to
spend. Your reported pursuit of a “35
per cent strategy”
sounds unambitious, but shows you understand how soft
Labour’s support really is.

As I found in Project Red Alert, my research on
Labour’s prospects at the end of last year, a third of those who would consider
voting Labour say the party hasn’t yet learned the right lessons from what went
wrong during its time in government, and cannot yet be trusted to run the
country again. Most of those who have switched to Labour say the party has
learned its lessons, but they are at a loss to say what makes them think this. Often
they simply want to believe it, which will be fine until they notice the
evidence to the contrary.

People’s biggest general worry about Labour is that the
party has not made clear what it would do to improve things. All most people
think they have heard from you is that you are against whatever it is that the
government is doing. This is understandable in the first half of a parliament,
but with only 25 months to the general election that position will soon become
unsustainable. It is also rather surprising, given your ambition to move the
centre ground of politics. It is debatable enough whether politicians can ever move
the centre ground; what is certainly true is that you can’t expect voters to
move towards you if they can’t tell where you are.

More specifically, undecided voters fear that Labour would
spend and borrow more than the country can afford. However much people may
dislike austerity, they understand that you can’t spend what you haven’t got;
by opposing every cut Labour seems to be turning away from reality. This
blanket oppositionism also works against you in the welfare debate. “The
problem of some people living on benefits when they are able to work” (along
with “Britain’s overall level of debt”) is one of the few things that many
people think would be worse today had Labour won in 2010.

I understand why you have got yourself into this position: some
of your new supporters hope you will restore what they have lost in the cuts,
and you are reluctant to disabuse them of the notion. But others wonder whether
Labour can yet be trusted with the public finances. In other words, some
potential Labour voters hope you will greatly increase public spending, and
others fear that you will. Sooner or later, and probably sooner than you think,
you are going to have decide who is to be disappointed.

Labour’s wholesale opposition to cuts would be slightly less
incredible if you did not simultaneously complain that the deficit is falling too
slowly. As it is, you seem to argue that we could borrow less if only we
borrowed more. After nearly fifty years in business I know a tough sell when I
see one.

One final point: what are you going to do about Ed Balls? Since
he was part of the Brownite team who were in charge when it all went wrong – to
put it as neutrally as possible – it is hard for you to claim Labour have
learned the right lessons and moved on while he remains Shadow Chancellor (a
difficult point for you to make, obviously). The other is that for as long as
he is in place you will be stuck with the policy that unaffordable spending
should continue.

Have you thought about moving him sideways to shadow Vince
Cable at Business? This would keep him in the front line where his obvious
political skills would remain at your disposal. It would also play to his
biggest strength, that of winding up his opponents. Politically, Cable has more
in common with Balls than he does with his Conservative colleagues. The
continual refrain from Ed that “I agree with Vince” would drive Tory
backbenchers nuts.

Just a suggestion. Why don’t we discuss over lunch?