What Would Tony Do?

Can Labour recover from the disasters of May? First, came the local election results, when the party trailed in third place, with 24% of the national vote; then Ken lost to Boris; and now the Crewe and Nantwich by-election has left the party reeling.

Few of us will sympathise with the plight of Gordon Brown: here was a man who, after 13 years of lusting and plotting, finally found himself in the job he had always dreamed of. Like his predecessor, 10 years before, he had a golden opportunity to usher in a period of progressive, radical government. Like his predecessor, he has flunked it.

Back when Gordon still seemingly had the Midas touch, The Times’s Matthew Parris put forward what was then a controversial view, and is now a commonplace observation, acutely describing the new PM as

an ambitious school bursar with a powerful ego, a good head for figures and a big gap in his brain where a creative political imagination ought to be.”

Labour should have seen this coming. The warning signs were there: Gordon’s retreats into his bunker at the first sign of trouble; his secretive, too-clever-by-half Treasury dealings; his inability to rally fellow cabinet ministers to his cause (but for which he would have long ago supplanted Tony Blair).

Instead the party – as befits its centralising, unquestioning, happy-to-be-led heritage – blocked any leadership contest in which Gordon’s ideas could be tested. The Parliamentary Labour Party pledged fealty to The Leader, ignoring any doubts they might have harboured. Those who live in marginal (and, perhaps, not-so-marginal seats) will soon reap their reward.

Is there any way out, any chance of Labour MPs redeeming their earlier cowardice?

There are, to be sure, a handful of capable cabinet ministers. If you could combine the intellect of David Miliband, the affability of Alan Johnson, the sex of Harriet Harman, the party management skills of Jack Straw, and the integrity of John Denham, Labour would have a leader to be feared. But they don’t. The current cabinet, like most cabinets of yore, is a collection of the intelligent, the technocrats, the misfits and the bores. There are many pygmies, no giant.

Besides, speculation about the Labour leadership conceals the bigger question: what is Labour now for? It’s a question that’s been hanging in the air since Tony Blair turned the party inside-out: his charisma deferred the moment when it needed to be answered. But answered it must be.

New Labour triumphed by promising economic, free market competence; mild social justice; and a benign, progressive reform agenda. Somewhere along the way (and it happened just as much under Blair as it is now under Brown) this gave way to an obsession with ineffectual anti-yob crackdowns, an increasingly nasty anti-immigrant stance, selling civil liberties down the river, and a neo-con foreign policy. The Labour party has swapped optimism for pessimism, and then wonders why the public thinks it will feel better when we’re finally rid of them.

To mis-quote Nye Bevan, it is not Labour’s unpopularity that should appal the party: it is the poverty of their aspiration.

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20 Comments

  • Martin Land 24th May '08 - 2:25pm

    David Boothroyd, should then understand that we have a particular insight in how to become a third party and if he wants to avoid that fate, listen more.

    But isn’t that why new Labour got into this mess in the first place?

    A simple failure to listen?

  • Still can’t get my head around folk like Mr Boothroyd who post nasty little jibes on another party’s “Place to Talk”. Who would want to lurk around the site of a party they don’t support?
    Get a life Mr B. – how’s about you post something constructive on your OWN party’s sites?

  • David can’t count either. We’ve had three – not four – leaders in the last three years, and we’ve also had three leaders in the last nine years and four in the last twenty or so.

    His time would be better spent working out how to rescue his party as it crumbles at the seams.

  • Yasmin Zalzala 24th May '08 - 6:38pm

    I would have hardly thought that the Liberal Democrats are in a position to gloat about Labour’s misfortune.

    I do not support any of the main parties

  • But the difference with Tony was that enough of the Labour party, in parliament and in the country was prepared to be led by him, because he had a proven record as a winner. Purnell (or someone else random and young) may yet be the next person Labour decides to trust but cannot have a reputation as a winner, and therefore cannot lead a party that has lost its way.

    Cameron, in contrast, is like Blair in the mid-1990s: he leads a party that is prepared to be led, even if some of them like him no more than Dianne Abbott liked Tony Blair. They are hungry enough for power to put up, shut up, and work hard. And they know that the reward for doing so will be power, and when you have been in opposition for so long that concentrates the mind.

    The question for us is whether people see us as Labout-Lite (in which case we are in trouble), or as an opposition party that some of them will choose to support when they throw out a tired and ineffective government at the next election. There is still all to play for.

    I do not think that Labour can win from here. At very least they need the economy to turn around and be perceived to turn around. That in turn almost certainly requires a big fall in oil prices, and massively bumper harvests to bring food prices down. Then the Bank of England can cut interest rates (otherwise my money is on the next move being up, not down), and people get the “triple whammy” of lower mortgage payments, lower domestic and transport fuel costs, and lower food prices. I don’t think that will happen. And even then I think Brown will get as little of the credit as Major did in the mid-90s.

    Farewell, Brown, for ever. And farewell Labour until around 2020.

  • Talking about successors to Brown I’m sceptical about all the current front runners.
    For me Douglas Alexander seems to be the only serious candidate, particularly because he is succesfully keeping his name from being discussed.

    The Alexander clan is notoriously close to Brown and yon Dougie is beavering hard away in International Development making diplomatic contacts across the globe (oops, I mean trying to help resolve the humanitarian crises in the newspaper headlines – oops again, I meant public consciousness).

    Maybe Browns demise will come too soon for him to have positioned himself as heir already (unless a swift promotion is forthcoming in a summer reshuffle), but he would be my choice for front man.

  • David Morton 25th May '08 - 9:43am

    I suppose in some ways we need to ask what Tony did rather than would do. he got out in Time. Going of his own volition will be the first page in History’s rehabilitation of him. If he had “gone on and on” they would be dragging him out of downing street by now and having him shot.

    If you look at the fundamentals. Oil and ultility prices, food inflation, falling house prices, 11 years in office etc etc it would be different under Tony and I doubt it will be different under anyone else.

    The second alternative question is “What will David do ?”. Stephens critique of the NuLabor project is unsurprisingly from the liberal/left. But the evidence suggests thats not where voters are turning to in search of a replacement.

    It seems as if after an Ad man leader spends two years decontaminating the brand then Western Europes most succesful political party just rises up again.

    On Tuesday Clegg should give a big speech saying Labour is dead, they are going to lose the next election, that he will never work with them in any circumstances what so ever. Whether this turns out to be true in a few years doesn’t matter.

    he should then shift the debate onto “Britian after Labour”. Week by week he should pick a failed theme of this government and ask where the country should go.

    The purpose of this strategy would be two fold.

    1. shifting the focus onto the future is our only hope of preventing a Conservative landslide and perhaps three terms of Government for them. If the narritive for the next two years is How long will Gordon last and how dreadful labour are then our two party establishment and FPTP will just see the see saw swing again.

    2. our only hope of hanging on against a landslide is being so anti Labour that people feel they already have an oposition MP. Starting the debate about “Britian after Brown” is our only hope of getting focus shifted on what the Tories would actually do.

  • I think it is too early to write Brown off. Certainly, his stint as Prime Minister thus far does not inspire confidence, and he has proved himself to be a poor communicator. But he has not suffered as yet the same kind of mid-term meltdown that characterised the Wilson, Wilson/Callaghan and Major administrations. The big Tory lead is less than three months old (Major trailed badly in the polls from September, 1992, right up until election day, 1997). There is no recession, just a mild downturn. Brown could reassert his authority and still lead Labour to victory in 2010 – just as MacMillan very nearly did for the Tories in 1964.

    If would be madness for the Party to start moving to the right, or for Nick Clegg to ape Cameron. Many of our voters support us to keep the Tories, not Labour, out. Ask two-thirds of the Parliamentary Party, and they will tell you so.

    What most Tory members want (capital and corporal punishment, conscription, withdrawal from the EU, repatriation of immigrants) Cameron cannot and will not deliver. The activists have a breaking point and they are complaining already. The Labour Party ditched socialism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By contrast, far right politics is still vibrant, with plenty of models to choose from, especially in the United States. The Tories I hear want Cameron to copy them. Yes, they will go along with the pretence while Cameron delivers votes, but something might yet happen to make the whole thing unravel (remember Enoch Powell, circa 1968?).

    Talk of a Tory landslide is premature. Too many “ifs”.

  • The issue over which tories has always struggled is free trade/protectionism.

    Translate this into modern day language and we have ‘Europe’.

  • “What most Tory members want (capital and corporal punishment, conscription, withdrawal from the EU, repatriation of immigrants)…”

    I’m not sure, when push comes to shove, that ‘most’ actually want full/total withdrawel from the EU, or conscription.
    And even if a majority want capital punishment, they will have done in the eighties as well, but did Maggie re-introduce it? Did it cause her big problems? No. Because the majority of Tory MPs wouldn’t support it.

  • I think David has a very valid point. If we now concentrate on “Britain after Brown”, firstly, Brown is discounted – as a lost cause.

    The question is then what each party would do – and that depends on its vision (for want of a better term) of what kind of society we are each trying to create.

    Labour supporters would have to fall in with us – because Labour nowadays is totally lacking in purpose – and the Tories, forced to face up to reality, are also brought to face up to their own internal contradictions.

    Yes, I like it.

  • “I think it is too early to write Brown off.”

    Not at all! David Morton is absolutely right, that we need to push the narrative along. In strictly practical PR terms, this is what the media are transfixed with anyway and, in this instance, the path of least resistance serves us well.

    Labour are in sharp decline — enfeebled by doubt and lack of direction, in deep trouble financially, facing rebellions from the trade unions, and being abandoned by the middle class. Why shouldn’t we write them off?

    I don’t think we need to announce we’ll never work with them. Just dismiss it as a prospect which, now, will never arise, because Labour is dying.

    Stephen asks, “what is Labour now for?” Well, exactly. That should be the headline on Stephen’s piece. Who cares what Blair would do, or what Brown will do?

  • passing tory 26th May '08 - 2:10pm

    FWIW I think that Stephen’s question is a good one if only because from a _political_ point of view TB was extremely good (as opposed to a _governmental_ perspective, where he was extremely poor).

    The problem for the old TB approach is that people were starting to wise up to it (as the history books are being written it is a PM’s ability to govern, rather than to politic, which gets noticed).

    But at the very least he would have worked hard to come across as relaxed, open and concerned – the very opposite of Brown at the moment.

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