FINDING THE KILLER INSTINCT
The Labour Decade
We are now reaching the end of Labour’s only, ever, full decade in office. As we do, we face an electoral defeat which could well give the Conservatives the next decade and more.
It may seem easier, and possibly less risky, to do nothing to change our position. But unless Labour acts now we are likely to spend the next ten years reflecting on the consequences from the impotence of opposition.
Since 1997 Labour has built a stronger and fairer society and transformed the lives of millions of people for the better. Our record is one to be proud of. But we have also failed to exploit many opportunities to chart a progressive path for the future. And, worst of all, over the last couple of years we have frivolously and foolishly discarded our dominant position in British politics, possibly permanently. During the last year Labour’s poll ratings have hit historic lows, and the dismal European and local elections translated this into actual votes.
Senior Party members know and well understand Labour’s true position but, for a variety of reasons, have so far decided to take no action. A conspiracy of silence has protected the Party leadership.
Just before Christmas this mood seemed to change. Newspaper reports and interviews pointed to serious doubts held by Cabinet members and others. There is the possibility that Labour’s underlying position in the polls and the failures of the Queens Speech and the Pre-Budget Report may now bring matters to a head.
Labour’s underlying poll position is disastrous. The UK Polling Report calculates the current average at 40-28-19, which implies a Conservative overall majority of 36 seats. This is significantly worse than a year ago, just before the London G20 summit, when Labour was in the mid-30s and 4/5 point Tory leads were routine. Moreover, many Labour-identifying voters say that they are not prepared to vote Labour at the coming election; a big pool of lost Labour voters now back other parties and Labour supporters are more likely than Tory ones to be considering switching sides or not voting.
All the evidence suggests that Brown’s leadership reduces Labour support, that alternative leaders would improve our ratings, and that an election determined by voters’ answers to the question “Do you want Gordon Brown to be Prime Minister for the next five years?” would further shrink Labour support.
In these circumstances some clutch, bizarrely, at the straw of an occasional poll showing ‘only’ a 9 point lead for the Conservatives (even when intermingled with 17 point leads). Others hope that the Conservatives might not achieve an overall majority but merely be the largest party in a hung parliament.
But in fact such a hung parliament would offer no political respite for Labour. David Cameron has used his New Year message to signal willingness to work with the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg has already made it clear that he would feel bound to permit the Leader of the largest party to form a Government. Though senior Liberal Democrats have privately indicated that this situation might change if Labour’s leadership changed, there’s little joy for Labour here.
Policy and Political Direction
The poor political impact of the pre-election Queens Speech and the Pre-Budget Report, as well as the November European Council and other events, have reinforced awareness that Labour currently has no strategy for escaping the deep political trouble it is in.
These were moments where a clear and articulate approach could have changed the mood. Instead they were used just to recycle old political ‘dividing lines’, which reflect a deep defeatist fear of discussing both our past approach and our future plans. We offered no account and no explanation of the past and, even more seriously, no constructive sense of direction for the future.
This ‘class war’ approach is explicitly designed to rack up ‘core Labour’ votes in core Labour areas and to protect the position of the current leadership.
Labour cannot win on this basis. We have to remain a Party with the widest possible appeal, which does not rely for support simply upon one particular group, faction or social class. Since 1983 Labour’s conventional wisdom has recognized that Labour has to seek to win marginal parliamentary seats, many of them in the South of England. Those most involved in formulating the electorally successful post-1994 ‘New Labour’ strategy recognize that this winning approach is now being deliberately abandoned.
Why the Silence So Far
A small group amongst the Labour leadership, inside and outside the Cabinet, believe, genuinely, that, if the economy improves and the Tories begin to implode, the public will rally to Gordon Brown as the General Election approaches.
Others believe that the election campaign could be fought in a way which diverts attention from our leadership (“It’s policies not personalities”). Unfortunately the recent confirmation of the campaign TV debates makes this just about impossible to imagine.
However most senior Labour leaders have had little faith in Gordon Brown’s leadership for a considerable time but over the last year have remained silent, and even professed support. They have done this for a variety of reasons.
The greatest concern is that, under current constitutional arrangements, there is no clear process through which a Party leader could be forced to stand down. They fear that his stubbornness would see off any challenge and precipitate chaotic internal conflict which in turn would reinforce Labour’s image of ineffectiveness and division, possibly without succeeding in changing the Leader. They feel that success requires ‘overwhelming force’.
Others worry that, without a clear challenger/successor, a change of leader might simply be a step from the frying pan into the fire. They think that the unpredictable uncertainties of a leadership election could be damaging. In fact a 21-day campaign is quite possible and would refocus attention on what Labour has positively to offer.
There is also fear of the perceived personal costs which could arise from antagonizing the leadership. The Damian MacBride style of politics is not dead – shortly before Christmas a senior Cabinet member warned me personally to take care ‘because Gordon’s spies are everywhere’.
A deeper pessimism, fed by the MPs’ expenses catastrophe, has led to fatalism. Too many accept defeat for Labour as inevitable. They do not perceive the personal consequences for themselves as shattering. They expect to hold their seats (almost no Cabinet members now have marginal seats) and then adjust to a life in Opposition in the new Parliament. Furthermore, only a third of the current Cabinet were in Parliament before 1997 and so have any direct Parliamentary experience of the 18 years of Tory Government before then.
There are also more ignoble motives for inaction. Some are actively preparing for post-defeat Labour politics and laying down markers for their own leadership ambitions. Others are looking to their future business careers, which they think will be less possible if they are seen as ‘troublemakers’. Others, probably mistakenly, hope for the Prime Minister’s patronage in securing their membership of the House of Lords after defeat.
What is to be done
The net effect of this conspiracy of silence and inaction has been that Gordon Brown has so far been able to see off all challenges to his leadership.
As we reach 2010, rightly described by Ed Balls as ‘the most important General Election for a generation’, the implications of the status quo are crystal clear – a smashing defeat for Labour and poorer lives for the people we seek to serve.
Yet the General Election is eminently winnable for Labour under a new leader. We still have the overall policies and approach which are best suited to meet the challenges of both the current crises and the future, even though we have not recently been successful in communicating them clearly.
Moreover the Conservatives have failed to establish themselves strongly. Their threat comes only from Labour’s weakness. Their only strength is the petty point-scoring of partisan oppositionist politics, based on vigorous and misleading attacks and clever phrase-making. They are deeply divided on policy issues of the greatest significance; their demeanour is increasingly introverted, provincial and backward-looking, notably so in the international arena; they offer no policy or political vision for themselves and they inspire no confidence in their own team of political leaders.
In Parliament and elsewhere an overwhelming majority of Labour opinion believes that in this position Labour’s chances would be significantly improved if Gordon Brown were to stand down.
Over Christmas there have been signs that this strength of opinion is understood in the Cabinet. The New Year will be the time to ensure that the overwhelming feeling which does exist is turned into the action which brings about the necessary change. The price of failure is just too high.
Doing nothing now may seem the easiest option. But Labour should learn from the Tories, who have had many whole decades in power: political parties need the killer instinct to hold on to office. David Cameron’s Conservatives are relying on Labour failing to learn that lesson.
From the beginning of 2010 we need a renewed Labour Party which can offer the people of Britain a genuine and positive choice at the ballot box.
Charles Clarke MP
I shall look forward to what LabourList, LabourHome and Left Foot Forward have to say about this rather interesting intervention.