Last week," said a friend of mine, "I read a list of the issues that Brown plans to take up after the May elections, so that he can seize the political initiative. And do you know what they were? Britishness and constitutional reform. I mean, my mortgage is going up, and I can't afford my petrol bills - for God's sake, what planet is the man on? What's that got to do with my life?"
As Labour slumps in the polls it's apparent there is a dangerous disconnection between the issues that concern voters and those the government thinks they should be worried about. This week, for instance, the government will be trying to push through 42-day detention for terror suspects, and combating a rebellion over the doubling of 10p tax. Meanwhile, election canvassers report that the biggest issues on the doorstep are post office closures, the loss of the 10p band, and the economy. Yet it was only on Monday that Gordon Brown finally managed to sound as if he understood he was meant to empathise with people's fears about the coming economic storm. The week before, in an impatient interview with Nick Robinson on the BBC, he had managed to convey only a resentful irritation with the electorate for being so anxious and irrational.
For the past 12 months, ever since the leadership election that never was, commentators have been warning uneasily that Brown needed to establish a connection with the voters by making it clear what he stood for, and what his government wanted to achieve. For the most part, that argument has had little traction. Brown has been able to shrug off complaints about his remoteness, his indecisiveness, or the political incoherence of decisions like the doubling of inheritance-tax thresholds, because the polls kept showing the Tories were unable to open up a substantial lead over Labour. The global financial earthquake has changed all that. Labour's last trump card was economic stability. Now voters are looking at the party with a much more unforgiving eye.
Labour's support has always been drawn from two key groups. One votes chiefly from self-interest - the party's policies match its social and economic needs. The second votes largely as an expression of values. It is drawn to Labour rather than the Tories because it believes that the party stands for a fairer society and a more rounded, generous view of what it means to be a human being. Brown's government is in trouble because both groups are becoming increasingly disenchanted.
MPs for marginal constituencies have been acutely aware of the party's vulnerability for some time. One minister I spoke to was frank about the tactics that are being adopted. Labour's national message was now so muddled, and its priorities so unlike voters' own, that some MPs were no longer selling the party's brand on the doorstep. "It wouldn't work. What people want to know is, what can you deliver for them in their daily lives? You can't knock on the door and give them some vague slogan dreamed up in Downing Street, 'Hello, I'm here to unlock your talent.' Instead I'm selling my own brand. I ask people, what are the issues that matter to you locally? And they want a CCTV camera, or a hospital to stay open, or their daughter to move up a housing list. And you act on it, and it's hugely time-consuming. But that's what people want. And it's only at the end that you say, we're just collecting some details here - and you say you're from the party."
The minister says about a dozen MPs have adopted the same personal approach to their constituencies, because trying to defend national policies is not what's going to get them re-elected. People are too confused and disillusioned. "We've created an ideological vacuum. All major political parties have abandoned ideology. The Tories have done the same; they've abandoned tax cuts. Then, when Brown came in and talked about his moral compass, you thought ideology might be coming back. But it wasn't. His actions don't fit his words - inheritance tax, ending the 10p rate. So you can't argue, this is what we stand for."
It is the disjunction between values and actions that is so damaging for Brown. He claims to believe in social justice, economic prudence and individual liberties, yet his record shows remarkable inconsistencies on all three. He presided over a boom based on cheap credit and mega City bonuses, while inflicting the giant mortgage on the nation that is the private finance initiative (PFI). His final budget snatched money from the poorest purely in order to score a quick hit against the Tories, but he never had the courage to bring in higher taxes at the top. His government found billions to bail out Northern Rock, but refused to find the £40m to refund the struggling families who had saved for Christmas clubs through Farepak.
As for freedoms, his instincts lead him to favour intrusion, oversight and control. Not only is he pushing ID cards and detention without trial, but his government has given councils and 318 other bodies unprecedented powers to spy on citizens suspected of the most minor offences. Even his introduction of tax credits to help working families has been fatally flawed, because the process of claiming them has been made so bureaucratic, punitive, intrusive and censorious that many of those who go through it end up hating the government and its agents.
This record in itself is enough to alienate millions of voters. It is made worse because although Brown is drawn to abstract ideas, he thinks public services should only be judged by outcomes that can be costed or measured. That obsession prevents him understanding the real impact on ordinary lives of so many official decisions, from shutting post offices to closing swimming pools or forcing people to go to giant GPs' surgeries. He doesn't grasp the fact that economic efficiency is not always people's overriding concern - that in their search for good lives, people expect that to be just one of the factors involved in making a political choice.
What Brown's supporters still maintain is that the man must be given more time and opportunities to set out his stall. That's no longer a credible stance. Brown has had well over a year to make an impact since Tony Blair announced his departure, and he has to be judged on his record. Reluctantly, those of us who hoped that the man had hidden depths have had to conclude that he's a man of hidden shallows. It's not a question of, as one MP put it, letting the nation see who he really is. We've seen it - the flickers of grim worthiness beneath the nervous, bumbling, indecisive arrogance - and on the whole we're not impressed. But since Brown is neither likely to acquire a new personality nor to be replaced unless the electorate throws him out, the only question is whether the party and the cabinet have got the guts or the mechanisms to push him into making the coherent and worthwhile decisions that will resonate with both the party and the voters.
Labour's chief politicians are currently divided between those who are pouring their energies into plotting their own paths to power, and those who are transfixed in the headlights of the impending disaster. The onus is now on them to start making collective decisions on Labour's future before they find that there isn't much of one left.