What now, Gordon?

GORDON Brown is today under intense pressure to work out how to return Labour to winning ways after presiding over the party's worst local election results in 40 years.

The scale of the electoral collapse surpassed even Labour's most private fears. A total of 331 Labour council seats, and nine councils, were lost as the party slumped behind the Liberal Democrats in the popularity stakes.

Even more worrying was the electorate's apparent willingness to embrace the sharp-suited style of David Cameron. Under his leadership, the Conservatives seized 44 per cent of the vote – in a general election enough to propel him into 10 Downing Street and provide a Commons majority of 138.

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As commentators compared the results to the dark days of Labour under Michael Foot, the Prime Minister took the unusual step of spending the weekend at Chequers.

On taking power last summer, he promised to dispense with the stately home – once a convalescent home for injured army officers – as a weekend retreat. Instead it was to be reserved for brainstorming sessions – precisely what Labour MPs are now demanding as they smell defeat at the next general election.

This weekend, as Mr Brown looks to reconnect with his party and the public, the similarity between the Tories' success under Mr Cameron and Labour's rise to power under Tony Blair will not have gone unnoticed.

Back in 1995, the then Labour leader opened up a massive lead over John Major's Tories in the local elections. Two years later he led Labour to a landslide victory.

Mr Brown, who went to bed on Thursday night rather than witness Labour's dire performance unfold on television, will seek to regain the initiative with a "mini Queen's Speech" of policy initiatives within the next couple of weeks.

But as Tony Travers, a politics expert at the London School of Economics, told The Scotsman: "There is no point making a Queen's Speech unless you have something to put in it.

"As Alastair Campbell used to say, there has got to be a narrative. But first they have got to work out what the story is, and then tell it consistently in a way the public understands."

Around him, Mr Brown is hearing different advice. His chief whip, Geoff Hoon, claimed there was "no crisis". But every Labour MP contacted by The Scotsman yesterday called for him to "get back to basics" and reconnect with the party's core support. Great damage had been done by the 10p tax fiasco and the failure to appreciate the difficulties caused by soaring food and fuel bills, they said.

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They realised they had just witnessed a Labour performance not seen since the "meltdown" of 1968 and surpassing even Labour's unpopularity in the early 1980s.

"We have got to relate to the day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues that affect people's lives," said David Blunkett, the former home secretary.

Senior Labour back-bencher Derek Wyatt turned the global economic crisis – Mr Brown's usual get-out clause – on its head when he declared that his parliamentary seat, with a majority of 79, was already "subprime". He said: "How many more Northern Rocks can there be? Look at the situation with fuel prices, the non-doms and the 10p tax band. Gordon has committed spectacular own-goals and the public is punishing him for it."

Mr Brown had begun his day with a sombre television interview in which he vowed to "learn the lessons" from the scale of the defeat.

Attempting to strike a note of contrition as he spoke from inside Downing Street, he said: "It's clear to me that this has been a disappointing night, indeed a bad night, for Labour. We have lessons to learn from that.

"We will learn the lessons. We will reflect on what has happened and then we will move forward."

His mood contrasted with that of Mr Cameron, who took to the skies for a whistle-stop tour of areas where the Tories had seized power, from the Vale of Glamorgan in Wales to Bury in Greater Manchester. "This is a big moment for the Conservative Party. This is a big step forward," he said.

Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, also saw success, with the capture of 25 per cent of votes and winning councils such as Sheffield, Hull and Burnley.

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When Labour lost control of former strongholds such as Reading, which it had held for 21 years, Mr Brown's critics took to the airwaves. Labour backbencher Ian Gibson said Mr Brown had until the autumn party conference to prove he could lead the party to victory.

But Andy Slaughter, Labour MP for Hammersmith and Fulham, said: "People are harsh with Gordon, particularly because they say this is the job he wanted for such a long time and should have been prepared for. When you look at his performance in opposition and in government over 20 years, we are clearly not seeing him at his best. But we know the potential is there and we know he can do it."

'He needs a national disaster to save him'

MAX CLIFFORD, PR GURU: "The problem has been that he has the image of being very strong and decisive man. But the authority that he had almost disappeared overnight at that "should we go for election, should we not?" episode. He dithered and dallied and that does not go down well with the British public.

"He had this image as the most successful chancellor, the man who had that quiet strength and authority.

Now the Conservatives, in their attacks on him, call him a ditherer.

"The British love someone who is strong and decisive, even if it's not someone they necessarily agree with: look at Maggie Thatcher. To be honest with you, the best thing that could happen to him is a national disaster – something that needs his attention, where he goes in and sorts it out and stamps his authority.

"It's a long uphill struggle otherwise, after a very bad start. But that's not to say it can't be turned around."

'Brown is the PM, the buck stops with him'

GEOFF MARTIN, CAMPAIGN GROUP LONDON HEALTH EMERGENCY: "I think time is running out for Gordon Brown. I think what he needs to do is send out urgent and clear messages to the Labour heartland that he does understand why people are so angry and bitterly disappointed.

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"If he doesn't do that, and do it quickly, I think the next general election is quickly slipping away. He is the leader and the prime minister and the buck stops with him.

"Probably for the first time in a generation, Labour voters are switching directly to the Tories. I don't think I have seen that since Margaret Thatcher was in power. If I was in the Labour high command I would be deeply worried.

"I think the Labour government has got to re-engage its core support, such as public sector workers. The fact some core supporters think David Cameron is a better bet should be ringing alarm bells through Downing Street."

'We need to remind people of the good'

ANNE BEGG, LABOUR MP FOR ABERDEEN SOUTH: "We have done very badly. But I think people may not be quite as happy when they see what they have voted for.

"If you look at what happened in Aberdeen, Labour lost control of the council five years ago. Now the council appears to be in financial meltdown.

"There is a danger that sometimes you might think it's time to give the other lot a chance. That may not necessarily be the best idea, but it takes some time for people to realise.

"What happened over the 10p income tax is quite illustrative. I had people over 65 phoning my office saying 'why are you doubling my tax?' when in fact they will be better off as a result of the changes, as they will be taken out of the tax system altogether.

"Once you have been in government for a long time, people forget the good things you have done. We need to remind them of that."

'I think it's possible to turn things round'

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KATY CLARK, LABOUR MP FOR AYRSHIRE NORTH AND ARRAN: "I think we have got to refocus on our core voters and win back the people we lost over Iraq. We have got to get out of Iraq as soon as possible and make it history.

"I think we have got to look to our core voters. I think we should enable councils to invest in a massive programme of council-house building. We have got to go back to basics and deliver for our people. In my view, we need a tax system – following on from what happened in the 10p tax issue – which lifts thousands on low incomes out of tax.

"We need to refocus, with a significant increase in child benefit, the minimum wage and the state pension. If we do that and we behave as Labour and Gordon Brown behaves as Labour Prime Minister, we will definitely win a fourth term.

"I think it's very, very possible to turn things round if we do the right things now. I don't believe that people don't want a Labour government. I believe they don't want a New Labour government."

GORDON BANKS, LABOUR MP FOR OCHIL AND SOUTH PERTHSHIRE: "We have got to wake up and understand that people don't have the same relationship with the Labour party now that they have had since 1997.

"Policy is the glue that will bind the Labour party together and bind people to the Labour Party. The carry-on over the 10p tax is a good example. We implemented the policy and, as everybody is now recognising, it had an unnecessary effect. It would have been much better to address that at the time, and that is something the Prime Minister and Chancellor are saying themselves.

"We have a moral duty to put it right and I have every hope and belief that we can. Two years is a long time in politics, as many people keep saying. I think there is still ample time for us to get things right. But we have to show the electorate we are listening to what they said to us on Thursday night. But it's what they have been saying to us in their mailbags for some time."

'PM must take wider range of advice'

MICHAEL CONNARTY, LABOUR MP FOR LINLITHGOW & EAST FALKIRK: "The first thing he (Gordon Brown] should do is take some time for reflection in a quiet environment and speak to a wider range of people than he has as far been asking for advice. This means not just his confidantes or those left over from the Blair era.

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"These results point to the worst environment that any mid-term government has ever seen, therefore he has to learn the lessons. He has been listening to people lately after things went wrong. He needs to do this in the initial stages of decision making.

"I still think he is the person with the most solid record and good grasp of what needs to be done to improve the quality of life for the people of this country.

"It is not a personality issue. He has the style of a chancellor and will be a good prime minister. That transition is not easy."