All is not lost

"Ken Livingstone has five children by three women" screamed one headline, "Johnson admits using cocaine as a teenager" shouted another.The other candidates for London mayor were never really going to get a look in. Two larger than life characters, oozing charisma, the personification of their politics. This was no ordinary election.

After a decade of national success for the reds, the blues are allegedly on the march and politics has got interesting again, it is said. Last night's results will be viewed in this context.

It was always going to be a difficult set of results for Labour, though it was not quite as bad as many had expected, with Labour down 162 councillors around the country at the time of writing. However, it is the London result that everyone is waiting for. What happens in the capital will dominate the weekend's headlines and set the political scene for next few weeks. So what will the London result tell us about the state of the parties and, most importantly, the forthcoming general election? In the short term, it obviously matters; in the long term, its significance is surely questionable.

People may not know what tier of government has competence over which policy area but they do draw a distinction between the local and the national. For example, on the doorstep in Streatham (admittedly not a bellwether seat), the overwhelming majority of voters voiced strong opinions on the two principal mayoral protagonists, but this was mostly to do with their like or dislike of the personalities involved.

When asked about the government and the prime minister's performance to date, the majority of voters in Labour and non-Labour wards in Streatham were not rushing to judgement, even after the 10p tax rate saga (an avoidable and regrettable mistake made by a party that has lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty since 1997). Many are waiting to see how the PM responds in the coming months.

These doorstep encounters are, of course, not reflected in the polls which suggest a bleaker picture for Labour. But the polls have been bouncing all over the place since last summer and the general election is some time away. There is still a good deal to play for.

For those outside the Westminster bubble, politics is not a game. They want to know how the politics of each party will make a tangible difference to their daily lives. First and foremost they want the government to take the long term decisions to ensure economic prosperity and stability in an uncertain world which affects jobs and mortgages,. But parties need to do more than act as competent managers of UK plc.

Labour must present the public with a vision of the kind of society it wants to bring about if it is to convince voters that it deserves a fourth term. It needs to show that government is not simply a matter of service delivery and management, but about transforming society. Labour needs to clearly and succinctly give the answer to the question "why and for what purpose?" in a way in which people can connect.

Gordon Brown did that in a passionate speech he gave to the Compass national conference four years ago. He said that Labour should seek to create a Britain where "the town square is more than a marketplace, the city centre more than where people buy and sell, the community more than a collection of individuals". He continued: "a measure of success would be that people think not of the hospital, or even just of my hospital but of our hospital" and in every town and city people would talk "not just of the school or even of my school but talk with pride of our school at the heart of our community."

He needs to return to that kind of oratory and complete the story so there can be no doubt what Labour is for, what it is doing and where it is going.

Chuka Umunna, Compass and PPC for Streatham

Published in Guardian