Page last updated at 07:22 GMT, Saturday, 24 April 2010 08:22 UK

Election 2010 analysis: Labour prepare campaign switch

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

With less than two weeks until polling day and just one prime ministerial debate left, Labour is registering in third place - or joint second - in opinion polls. This state of affairs seems to be prompting a change in the way Labour will conduct its campaign.

Some senior people feel that the campaign has been lacklustre, and lacking in ideas. In part the problem is seen by strategists close to the prime minister as one of perception.

On Friday Gordon Brown said he would fight "like his life depended on it" but the pictures from the campaign trail look rather like royal visits, as he and wife Sarah glad-hand at schools and sure start centres and meet Labour supporters.

His aides will point out that the prime minister does allow himself to be challenged by opponents too - not just in the television debates - but by so called 'real people' in local radio phone-ins, but they acknowledge that the images on the campaign trail might look too contrived.

So we can expect to hear more emotive language from the prime minster in coming days. He will conduct more impromptu question and answer sessions with members of the public in their workplaces, and - as one adviser put it "do more campaign things" such as walkabouts where he isn't simply surrounded by supporters - in short we can expect to see him fight a bit more.

But Labour's problems exist below the surface too.

Ask Gordon Brown publicly about the prime ministerial debates and he says they are "energising". But privately he thinks they have sucked the oxygen from the rest of the campaign and he is frustrated by what he sees a media obsession with personality, not policy.

And that creates difficulties for his current approach. One senior minister told me that the first two weeks of the campaign had largely solidified Labour's core vote; another that the core vote is about 80 per cent solid. But while many of the 'don't knows', the floating voters, haven't floated towards David Cameron, they haven't floated towards Labour either.

A minister told me Labour's private polling shows that undecided voters place the economy at the top of their concerns "by a country mile" and that is why they will bang on and on about it. But the campaign will broaden to talk more about public services and what they will portray as a Conservative threat to them too - starting on Saturday with the NHS.

But some senior figures are musing over what happens if Labour can't drag themselves into first place.

No-one has told me they expect Labour to finish third. But some do think they will finish no better than second in the share of the popular vote - although, because of the way the electoral system works, they could possibly still get the greatest number of seats. This has led to a lively discussion over strategy

There are those in cabinet who say variously "Labour has to up its progressive offer" or as another put it more simply "create an anti-Tory alliance". In practice that means talking far more (though not exclusively) about where Labour and the Lib Dems agree and less about where they disagree

The thinking is therefore if, say, the Conservatives get 35 per cent of the vote and Labour, say, 32 - but Labour ends up with more seats - and the Lib Dems get maybe 29 or 30 per cent, then Labour could claim some sort of mandate for a progressive alliance to keep the Conservatives out of power.

But other voices say actually Labour should do the opposite and attack the Lib Dems far more before polling day.

For now, Gordon Brown has found a third way on this.

He is setting out clearly the differences as well as areas of agreement with Nick Clegg. He wants to tell Labour voters who might be ready to dally with the Lib Dems that Nick Clegg's party isn't progressive - ie left wing - on issues such as child tax credits so please don't defect.

But he also wants to sound positive on a few issues as a way of persuading some Lib Dem voters to back Labour on 6 May to stop the Tories getting a majority.

But Gordon Brown's big hope - and to be fair, his expectation - is the election now moves on to policy.

There is widespread approval in Labour's upper ranks for his acknowledgement that people might not like him personally, but, as one adviser put it, "if it does all move on to policy and we find people don't like the policy either, then we lose the election".

But those closest to Gordon Brown still think, with a re-energised campaign and the Conservative lead cut from before the TV debates, it's all to play for.



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