What Would Tony Do?

by Stephen Tall on May 24, 2008

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.