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Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 12:18 UK

Labour manifesto analysis: What is the party's message?

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News, Birmingham

Sarah and Gordon Brown on the campaign trail in Rugby
Gordon Brown was joined by his wife Sarah for the manifesto launch

Labour's manifesto was launched at a hospital which, if the polls are to be believed, might well open under a different government.

At the moment it's a gleaming edifice - paid for by the private finance initiative much loved by Gordon Brown when he was the chancellor of the exchequer - but will not be fully operational until June.

The new Queen Elizabeth hospital will treat victims of the conflict in Afghanistan, and the first line of the prime minister's foreword to the manifesto is a tribute to the British forces who are fighting there.

If that was intended to be statesmanlike, then the rest of the manifesto quickly descends into a political battle with the opposition.

Gordon Brown favours "dividing lines" designed to put his opponents on the back foot, though after the first week of the election campaign many Labour strategists know they are the ones who have ground to make up.

No extra cash

The manifesto does provide many of the intended points of difference with opponents - for example, as all main parties now believe a national minimum wage is a good thing, so Labour challenges opponents to say if they would match the party's new commitment to raising it at least in line with earnings over the lifetime of the next parliament.

Labour party 2010 manifesto
Labour says this this manifesto is a departure from "business as usual"

But the manifesto seeks also to answer two fundamental questions. Firstly, why re-elect a party that's been in government for 13 years and why do so when people tend now to feel less well off than at the 2005 election?

Gordon Brown stressed that the manifesto was written "in the future tense" and the government is determined to show it has not run out of steam. If there is no extra cash to build state-of-the art hospitals such as the Queen Elizabeth, there can still be reforms made to the way the health service is run, they say.

Hence the guarantees on treatment times for patients in England and their commitment to allow better run English hospitals to take over the management of their less healthy neighbours.

But the second question from voters is likely to be "what's in it for me?"

Labour tries to answer this too by offering those directly employed by government departments what's called a "living wage" - higher than the national minimum. That shows that government is a good employer, say Labour - but to the opposition, the gesture looks more like a bribe.

Labour are also keen to rebuild as much of their "big tent" coalition of 1997 which had shrunk to a bivouac at last year's European elections when the party did slightly less well than UKIP.

That means - according to party strategists - that they have to do more to appeal not to those on modest incomes but to what they call the "squeezed middle" - people on middling incomes struggling to recover from the recession. For those with young children they are offering an extra £4 a week as a "toddler's tax credit".

Gordon Brown delivers Labour manifesto

Another attempt at coalition-building - not with another party (at least not at this stage) but with sceptical voters - is the offer of constitutional reforms, designed to appeal to those who might be considering voting for the Lib Dems.

This package of measures includes the commitment to a referendum on changing the voting system, though critics might wonder if Labour's enthusiasm for such changes is in inverse proportion to their poll ratings.

But ultimately who is most trusted - or least distrusted - to run the economy is likely to be the crucial issue at this election, so Labour is offering "growth funds" to business, a new Green Investment Bank, and at least a little reassurance on business tax levels after the row over the planned national insurance increase.

And voters depressed by the recent economic downturn are being told this manifesto will be a departure from "business as usual" with more government intervention to nurture much-needed new enterprises.

But Labour have also committed themselves to halving the enormous deficit in four years and voters will have to judge if the party is giving them enough sense of how they intend to do that.

A whole page of the manifesto is devoted to telling us how Labour has taken "tough choices", including decisions to cut government overheads and to find £15bn in efficiency savings in 2010/11.

If the manifesto was, at least in part, about hope, some of the election rhetoric is more likely to be about fear

Labour say their pledge to protect frontline services is affordable and all their manifesto commitments are costed. Maybe so.

But the manifesto is very much accentuating the positive - tax credits here, higher wages there - and eliminating the negative. They have been open about the need to cut "non priority" areas of spending, and that those cuts would be deeper than in Mrs Thatcher's era.

But the detail of how the deficit would be halved - and specifically which programmes in which departments will face the axe - was not spelled out today.

If they are re-elected we all have to wait for a Comprehensive Spending Review to find out their intentions.

The Conservatives will say Labour simply is not serious enough about paying down debt and the Lib Dems will say they are not being honest about cuts.

But for all the optimistic tone of the manifesto, whose cover seems to hark back to a gentler, pre-globalisation age, during the campaign expect the rather less upbeat mantra "don't allow the Conservatives to wreck the recovery" to be repeated.

If the manifesto was, at least in part, about hope, some of the election rhetoric is more likely to be about fear and defending the decisions Labour has taken in the past.

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