There can be no doubt that over the past few weeks Labour has enjoyed its best run for a long time – certainly since the surge of popularity that came with Gordon Brown taking over the premiership in 2007 (remember that?).
The opinion polls give Labour a massive lead over the Conservatives that would yield a comfortable parliamentary majority if translated into votes in a general election, even with the proposed reduction of the size of the Commons and redrawing of constituency boundaries.
A fortnight ago, Labour did much better than anyone expected in the local elections, gaining more than 800 council seats across Great Britain. It took control of councils in the south-east and east of England where its parliamentary representation had been reduced to a handful by the 2010 general election. It emphatically reversed the drift away from Labour in local government in south Wales. And it at least stood up to the nationalist challenge in Scotland. Ken Livingstone losing in London was a disappointment, but Labour did better in the London Assembly election than ever before.
The coalition government, meanwhile, is facing troubles that it shows no sign of containing. George Osborne’s budget, giving money to the rich and taking it from the poor, was a public relations disaster that he will not easily live down. The economy is in the doldrums and shows no sign of recovery. And the Tories’ intimacy with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is slowly but surely being exposed to public view, text message by text message, email by email, at the Leveson inquiry.
The Tory right’s dissatisfaction with the compromises of coalition in general and with David Cameron in particular is palpable. So too is the Liberal Democrats’ fear that they face electoral disaster if they stay on their current course.
To top it all, Ed Miliband has been doing rather better than before as Labour leader. He still appears awkward a lot of the time, but he is now matching Cameron in parliament and seems to have seen off the sniping of Blairite nostalgics in his own party. Why, this week Ed Balls and Peter Mandelson even co-authored a piece for the Guardian’s comment pages declaring that they agreed on Europe (except on the small matter of whether Britain should join the euro).
It is, however, too early for Labour supporters to break open the champagne. We are three years from the next general election, and a lot could happen in that time. Mid-term local election successes on low voter turnouts are not reliable guides to subsequent general election results. As for the polls, it is only four months since the Tories and Labour were neck-and-neck, and a Tory recovery cannot be ruled out.
Everything depends on what now happens to the economy – or rather what is perceived by voters to be happening. So far, the coalition’s story that austerity is necessary to pay back the debt left by Labour’s irresponsible spending spree before 2010 has chimed remarkably well with the electorate: the big question over the next six months is whether Labour can get a hearing outside the political class for its moderately Keynesian alternative.
Here, Labour could do worse than emulate the thrust of Francois Hollande’s successful French presidential campaign – maybe not a 75 per cent tax on very high earners but something similarly symbolic of making the rich pay their fair share, along with a package to boost demand in the economy (through building council houses, say). That’s pretty much in line with what the shadow chancellor would like to make his message: Labour now needs Balls to do it with some élan.