15 May 2009

Who's gonna get it (in the neck?)

The last instalment in a three-post series analysing what the most likely - and (probably not the same) the most desirable - scenarios are for the next Labour leader.

As each day passes I'm driven towards the conclusion, which many of you will have reached already, that Labour is headed for an absolute landslide defeat. Probably down to less than 200 seats in the next parliament.

Polly Toynbee has recently been converted to the view that Brown should go before the next election - in fact, that he should step down now. She is now backing Alan Johnson as an alternative leader. This is a turnaround from the last few months, when she was saying Brown was the only hope - and then before that, in mid-2008, when she was saying Brown must go - and then before that, in 2007, when she was saying Brown was the best thing since sliced bread. I think Polly is very good on most things, but on this particular subject, she's lost it.

I don't think Johnno would do much good at this stage anyway. There's not enough time to put together a coherent political strategy between now and next June. The main battleground (apart from MPs' expenses) is the economy, where Alan has not really had much experience (not that Cameron or Osborne have either, but there you go). In 2006/07, even in 2008, I was saying yes to a Johnno bid for the leadership, but I think it's too late now.

I think Polly Toynbee is wrong anyway: best to let Gordon Brown take the hit and preside over an annihilation of the New Labour project. Then we can start over. It sure as hell ain't gonna be easy. But it doesn't have to be such a complete cock-up as the William Hague/Iain Duncan Smith era was for the Tory party.

Why? Because the Tories made the mistake of retreating into a more extreme version of the Thatcherite policies which the voters had soundly rejected in 1997. Hague and Duncan Smith were hard-line Thatcherites.

The analogue would be if a rump Labour party just retreated into a hardcore Blairite or neo-Blairite agenda - Alan Milburn/John Hutton/Steve Byers territory - after the next election. But I don't see any reason why they'd do this. The main leadership contenders - the Milibands and Cruddas - don't have a huge ideological attachment to Blairism. (OK, I'm not totally sure about David Miliband, but we'll come back to that). The party base and the unions sure as hell don't want it. Whether the parliamentary Labour Party wants it depends on its composition after the next election, which would take me too long to analyse at this point, but I would imagine that most MPs will be flexible enough to try a move away from the Blair/Brown agenda, rather than more of the same thing that has just destroyed the party electorally.

So, with Blairism (and Brownism, which is much closer to Blairism than most people think) discredited, there will be a space for genuine radical thinking in the Labour party - in the same way that Dave Cameron moved in with genuine (for the Tories) radical thinking after 2 election defeats for the post-Thatcherite agenda in opposition. The main thing, though, is that whoever the leader is, they need their shit together from day one (or at least Year One). Labour cannot afford to f*** about in opposition in a Tory 1997-2005 style, let alone a Labour 1979-83 style. (In fact Labour can't afford much of anything as the party owes millions - they will probably have to go bankrupt and start again - but due to the wonders of modern bankruptcy law designed to encourage 'entrepreneurial behaviour', that's no great problem, so we won't worry about it.)

Who should the next Labour party leader be? I would be happy to see either Jon Cruddas or Ed Miliband do it. Cruddas has the advantage that his powder is very dry, politically speaking - he's not been a government minister at any time - and he has a reputation for plain speaking coupled with an intelligent and logical analysis of political issues, which is an unusual combination. (Many current political heavyweights don't have even one of those attributes, let alone both). Ed Miliband has managed to be about as radical as one can be in the present New Labour cabinet without actually getting kicked out, and has been reasonably effective as Climate Change Secretary - overturning at least some of the shitty decisions that Gordon Brown has made on the environment. He's also a very good speaker, albeit with less of the common touch than Jon Cruddas. On the flipside, he's younger than Cruddas (but I don't know if youth is really that important. Ming Campbell was supposedly deposed from the Lib Dem leadership for being too old, but Vince Cable is one of the most popular politicians in Parliament, and he's almost as old as Campbell. Go figure.)

David Miliband, some journalists' favourite choice, would be less my inclination, partly because I felt the guy sucked up to Tony Blair far too much (indeed my nickname for him was "microBlair" at the time), and partly because I'm not really sure he has the same kind of progressive ideological backbone that Ed has. That's no barrier to a successful top-flight ministerial career - indeed he has already achieved that, as Foreign Secretary - but a decent Labour Party leader needs to have strong ideological convictions. The fatal flaw of Tony Blair was that he didn't in general - and on the occasion he did, they were brainstormingly right-wing. Gordon Brown claimed to have strong ideological convictions, but we've seen precious little of them from him as PM. In fact we've seen precious little of anything from Gordon - the word 'failure' doesn't even begin to cover it.

Other options for leader look dreadful or unrealistic. I've already covered Alan Johnson; I think he'll be seen as too old and he won't really want it anyway, except as a caretaker - but why go for a caretaker when you can have the real thing? The arguments against Jack Straw are pretty much the same as Johnson. Harriet Harman is popular with certain activists but would go down like a lead balloon with the public, and is not as radical as she claims to be, by any stretch. The old guard of Blairites - Milburn, Clarke, Byers, etc. - are delusional if they think they can run successfully for the leadership. How, exactly?

James Purnell is an interesting one. My instincts on Purnell are that he's pretty duff but an acquaintance of mine who works for him suggests otherwise, and as this acquaintance is not in the habit of talking bollocks, I have to at least weigh that in my deliberations. According to Guardian journalist Allegra Stratton, there is some kind of backroom plot among Blairites to pair up Purnell and Jon Cruddas in some kind of 'dream ticket' (a phrase last used about the Neil Kinnock- Roy Hattersley combination, which admittedly was somewhat underwhelming). I'm inclined to think this is just yer standard "journo attends think-tank party and is desperate to write something" bollocks - but it is nonetheless marginally intriguing.

You can assume that any Labour MP not mentioned here in connection with the leadership is either too boring, too extreme (which doesn't mean they wouldn't be good - John McDonnell, for example, would be a class act as leader, but he just ain't got the power base to run for it) or too damn heinous to spend any time on. But we can always come back to this as I don't think that election will be any time soon, no matter what expenses claims excitement emerges from the woodwork.


Van Patten said...

Interesting analysis - what you fail to consider is whether Labour should have a future at all. I would hope Cameron would resolve the West Lothian question by eliminating the Scottish and Welsh representation in Westminster. If he can extend term times to ten years, as well as institute some measure of franchise reform, we can ensure that your discussions are akin to angels dancing on the head of a pin, as we can ensure perpetual UKIP/ Conservative hegemony with low taxation, a tough law and order policy and limited immigration, creating a positive government agenda for the next decade....

giroscoper said...

Your policy prescription sounds more BNP than UKIP, Derek.