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Labour must take the fight to the Tories, day in, day out | Polly Toynbee

Labour doesn’t need a bout of soul-searching. It must start delivering smart bombs down government chimneys

Labour is not an ex-government in waiting to be the next government. It is Her Majesty’s opposition with an essential part to play in the proper functioning of democracy. Its job, its duty and its opportunity is to oppose this government, morning noon and night, with all its might, with heart and head, offering an alternative view of how the country could and should be run. Whether or not it wins at the next election, it has nearly four years in which to play that vital role.

Rarely has an opposition had such an easy task, an open goal wherever you look in every department. The NHS is tottering under David Cameron’s great marketising re-disorganisation, costing £2bn and probably much more. Not a day goes by without bad news from some corner of this chaos, with worse results to come. Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit is at the top of the Treasury’s risk list, with its costly new IT system in peril, while £18bn is cut from benefits – the disabled and children hit hardest.

The new planning laws are about to join a catalogue of policy failures, written by the property developer donors to the Tory party. Quangos have been abolished at high redundancy cost, only to be resurrected. Civil servants have been fired only for new ones to be hired and trained, notably tax inspectors who bring in many multiples of their salaries. The true cost of free schools, financed by cash stripped from local school budgets, will become a growing scandal.

Forests and school sports had to be rescued. What of the £100m (at least) spent electing police commissioners, who risk turning politically explosive? It doesn’t take much effort to stumble across examples of this government’s unexpected incompetence and casual cruelty. If Labour ministers had been a fraction as hopeless or reckless in 1997, they’d have been flayed. The opposition is spoiled for causes.

Yet Labour has been behaving recently as if it had a deep existential problem. Who is it? What’s it for? Where should it go? The conference is knee-deep in tracts, books, pamphlets and magazines from all wings, penned with intellectual intensity, peppered with “isms” and “ologies”, contorted with a self-doubt that never troubled Cameron or George Osborne. Labour must apologise – even for things it never did – many say, as they gorge on humble pie.

A few rousing reminders of all that Labour did could easily lift the spirits of delegates here, from right to roam to free museums, Sure Start, free nursery schools, civil partnerships, a million fewer poor pensioners, free swimming, tax credits, abolishing NHS waiting lists, restoring the splendour of city centres – and a great deal more.

Too many old soldiers are fighting old wars: the David Blunketts, Tessa Jowells and all the rest, wringing their hands in public, complaining that no one is listening to Labour. Instead of navel-gazing, they should use their considerable firepower for daily cannonades against the enemy. The likes of Blunkett, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, John Prescott and the rest have the inside knowledge to deliver smart bombs right down the chimney of each department they used to run. Forget public advice to the new young leaders, people would listen to their experience if they devoted themselves to devastatingly forensic attacks on government policy. Otherwise, their silence would be appreciated.

The Labour conference is always a good reminder of who the party really is, as speaker after speaker in the hall and fringe meetings talk of what’s happening on their patch, to their councils, to the people they work with and care for. These are not scary lefties or fist-waving ideologues. Listen to them and no one need write another pamphlet worrying about what Labour is for. They are more agitated, anxious and angry than their leaders, who exude too much caution. In search of credibility, Labour’s officer class often says too little for fear of saying the wrong thing. But muffling the message is no way to be heard.

To be sure, Labour has problems. A reprise of the famous Southern Discomfort analysis by Giles Radice is a reminder that there are virtually no Labour MPs left in the south outside London. The question is: what would win the attention of voters in an age of disillusion, north or south? A shading of the difference between the parties surely is not the answer. Returning to nostrums of 1994 in this changed era won’t help either. In truth, Labour is in not too bad a place, so soon after a catastrophic defeat. A little ahead in the polls with four more years of screw-tightening living standards, not split by rows, there is every chance of returning to power.

But the party needs to regain its self-confidence. The speeches are good, as shadow ministers one by one turn up the indignation – although their thunder can make the actual policies look pallid in contrast. Ed Balls’s assault on the government’s economic policy was a strong demolition, in theme and content. “An economic policy is only credible if it works. Osborne’s economic plan is hurting, but it’s not working” – this was a bullseye because it’s plain for all to see. Unemployment is rising and the deficit fails to fall, the one the result of the other. His five-point plan was a good start, a firm pointer for a different direction of travel: 25,000 new homes, 100,000 jobs for the young, and cutting VAT all point the way to growth – even if these don’t quite match the vehemence of his Keynesian assault on Osborne. The £3,000 cut in student fees is the right signal.

However, binding yourself to the mast of rigorous debt-reduction with spending policed by the Office for Budget Responsibility is an uneasy reminder of Brown’s broken golden rule. Or, if it is to be believed, then it may be too harsh to ease the austerity he attacks. Ed Miliband is billed as declaring the end of 30 years of Thatcher/Reagan neoliberalism, under-regulated markets, small government and undertaxed wealth, to be replaced by a fundamentally better brand of capitalism. That promise will need a bold plan to match.

Labour can’t produce a budget for an unknowable economic state four years in the future – but that frees them to say they would do more right now in this crisis. Credibility is not only earned by caution: it’s earned by firing the public imagination with hope of a better alternative. A Labour team firing on all cylinders needs to return to Westminster leaving behind the apologies and self-doubt, certain of its duty to knock the hell out of a government doing such damage to almost everything it touches. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds