The question isn’t: ‘Should Labour replace Gordon Brown?’ It’s ‘Why would anyone want to succeed him?’

by Stephen Tall on July 25, 2008

Last night’s stunning SNP victory in Glasgow East caps one of the worst six months for the Labour party in at least 25 years. Policy gaffes and u-turns; a deeply unpopular leader; and catastrophic election defeats across the country – it doesn’t get much worse than this.

The time has now passed when the question could genuinely be asked whether it is in Labour’s interest to replace Gordon Brown as leader. The answer is just too obvious: of course they should, and (if it can be achieved in a dignified way) the sooner the better. It isn’t just a matter of the polls, though they are dire. More importantly, Mr Brown has proven himself to be a failure as a leader, unable to communicate his vision, or how that vision could translate into policy, to either his party or the public. And that’s a pretty basic requirement for a political leader.

It isn’t that anyone in the current cabinet stands out as a fantastic leader; it’s that few of them would be any worse. (And when you look at the current cabinet that’s as damning a verdict as you can get). Any Labour MP today sitting on a majority of between 5,000 and 10,000 must surely reflect that it’s more likely they’ll survive the next general election with a more dynamic leader.

The real question now is: what should Labour look for in their next leader? Should it be someone who’s a ‘competent caretaker’ (Jack Straw), ‘steady as she goes’ (Alan Johnson, John Denham, Hilary Benn), an ‘articulate woman’ (Harriet Harman, Tessa Jowell), or a ‘bright young thing’ (David Miliband, James Purnell).

Either of the first two categories – ‘competent caretaker’ or ‘steady as she goes’ – would, in my view, be a mistake for Labour. Though it might halt the haemorrhaging in Labour’s support, it would be little more than damage control, a safety first tactic to stave off a potential landslide defeat. It would be a sign that Labour had given up on winning a fourth term, and was retiring to lick its wounds.

The riskier options – an ‘articulate woman’ or ‘bright young thing’ – are less likely, I think, but would at least suggest something new and fresh, a chance for Labour to regroup with vigour with the aim of seeing off David Cameron and his band of Tories. In the case of either Messrs Miliband or Purnell, however, the question that will haunt them is: ‘Will I be Labour’s William Hague?’