Opinion: If I were in the Labour party's shoes…

by Stephen Tall on September 3, 2008

Peace at the top of the Labour party lasted a month. Indeed, it had almost begun to seem as if Labour’s leadership crisis in July – the disastrous Glasgow East by-election defeat, David Miliband’s manoeuvrings – had been a figment of the mass imagination of the political commentariat.

But first Alastair Darling went blisteringly off-message, declaring the UK was facing the worst economic crisis in 60 years. And now Charles Clarke has encored his over-familiar bull-in-a-china-shop routine with an acerbic (and rather peculiar) paean to ‘Blairism’ in the New Statesman which concludes with a less-than-veiled threat:

This past week, Alistair Darling rightly said that the “coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour Party has had in a generation”. Blairism as a concept offers little by way of rescue. It is certainly not a guide to action. Equally, however, it is inaccurate and misleading to dismiss as some kind of Blairite rump those who fear that Labour’s current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election.

There is no coherent Blairite ideology. Many of us who were proud to be members of Tony Blair’s government had differing approaches even then, and certainly propose differing prescriptions now.

Similarly, there is no Blairite plot, despite rumours and persistent newspaper reports. There is, however, a deep and widely shared concern – which does not derive from ideology – that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are, combined with a determination that we will not permit that to happen.

As so often with Mr Clarke’s media interventions, his blunt language does little to make his meaning clear: he’s the very epitome of a velvet hand in an iron glove. Let’s take the final sentence. Are we supposed to infer that the concern he expresses “which does not derive from ideology” is his party’s leadership? Why doesn’t he just say so? Given one of the chief criticisms of Gordon Brown is his inability to articulate his beliefs, it’s a tad ironic for Mr Clarke to go to such euphemistic lengths to conceal his own real point.

And what are we to make of his bald statement, “we will not permit that to happen”? Surely it’s incumbent on someone who delivers such an explosive ultimatum to explain clearly not only what their complaint is, but also how they plan to put right the problem they’ve identified?

But that is not Mr Clarke’s aim. Merely by writing his article he has propelled the Labour leadership crisis back into the full glare of the headlines. Job done. We can be pretty sure that Mr Brown’s future will continue to dominate the news at least up until the Labour party’s conference.

Liberal Democrats will, perhaps, have a sense of déjà vu: Ming Campbell’s leadership suffered just such a death-by-a-thousand-cuts fate last autumn. Ultimately, Ming was forced to the conclusion that he could no longer continue in post: the leadership speculation was the prism through which every story to do with the Lib Dems was viewed. How could the party seize the initiative in such a climate? It couldn’t. Ming chose to do the decent thing and fall on his sword. Even his closest supporters felt it was his only option, both for his own good and that of the party.

The overwhelmingly negative reaction of the media to yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister of his much-trailed, damp squib of an economic recovery plan was a foretaste of what the Labour party can look forward to over the next few months. Mr Brown has lost his credibility; power is slipping through his fingers; and journalists are watching, waiting, writing him off. It will take more than a stamp-duty holiday or energy windfall tax to rescue him.

It’s sad for the 313 Labour MPs who acclaimed him as their leader just over a year ago, and a personal tragedy for Mr Brown, but the fact is that there’s little more he can now do to rescue his party.

There seems to be some received wisdom (for want of a more apposite phrase) among Labour MPs that however bad things seem now they would be worse if Mr Brown were forced from office. I guess such comforting group-think is more appealing than recognising the reality of their situation. After all, many Lib Dems, and I include myself, subscribed to that view a year ago when contemplating our own leadership. A year on, the party is up in the polls and the leadership question settled for a good few years to come.

Now of course it’s different for a governing party than it was for the Lib Dems. And yes, the Tories and Lib Dems would doubtless urge any new Labour leader to call an immediate election to claim their mandate. But it would be perfectly reasonable for a new Prime Minister to ask the country to give him or her up to a year to make their mark. Sure, it would set the clock ticking. But then it already is. There is little more than 18 months between now and the last date when a general election can be called.

If the Labour party wants to avoid evisceration it has only one option: to convince Gordon Brown to relinquish the job he spent 13 years lusting after. And that will take a bigger man than Charles Clarke.