06 June 2009

Anyone for Guts?

There's a great John Cale song called "Guts" which starts with the very memorable opening couplet:

The bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife
Did it quick, then split...

If we view the Labour party as the 'wife' and either Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as the 'bugger in the short sleeve' this provides a very interesting analogy, apart from the fact that they did it over fifteen years, an eternity if as Harold Wilson thought, "a week is a long time in politics."

I've been thinking a lot about guts in the last 24 hours, the lull between the annihilation of the local election results and the humiliation of the Euro election results. The Euros are announced a few days later because some EU countries like to vote over the weekend, and, unlike the USA, we Europeans seem to be sane enough not to announce results from one part of the continent while another part of the continent is still voting.

This gap has created a weird 48-hour political stasis. Everybody knows those Euro results are going to be bloody awful... in some regions Labour might come in fifth, behind the Tories, UKIP, Lib Dems and the Greens. Labour's share of the vote is likely to be less than 20 percent.

There have been several open announcements by MPs, both known mavericks and former loyalists, that the game is up and Brown should step down. There are now two questions. One is whether the email 'round robin' campaign that has been circulating around the Labour ranks will be able to pick up the 80 to 100 signatures necessary to convince a leadership challenger that he/she can get the necessary support - 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party to stand. I would say this is pretty much a certainty. Despite the fact that so far only a few dozen MPs have openly declared themselves as wanting Brown to go, dozens more - perhaps well over a hundred - will be ready to say the same thing via email. Spectator editor Matthew d'Ancona makes the point well.

The other (I believe harder) question is whether a big contender can be persuaded to throw his or her hat into the ring, once that email is released into the open showing the number of signatories backing it. The most obvious contender is Alan Johnson, who has backed the PM - to an extent - so far. It's important to be clear: if Johnno wants to be PM, Monday - or Tuesday at the latest - is the time to declare. He won't get a better chance - indeed he probably won't get another chance at all. If he baulks now, and waits until after the general election to throw his hat into the ring, there will be all sorts of other contenders - Jimmy Purnell, one or two Milibands, Harriet Harman, Jonny Cruddas, and heck knows who else (assuming any of these is left with a seat in Parliament by then). And I would imagine in those circumstances Labour would go with a younger leader, less tainted by the failures of the past few years.

In any case, Labour is likely to be a rather tatty and dehydrated piece of rump steak in electoral terms after the next election if Brown stays on until then. As I've indicated in previous posts, there is some attraction to the political enema that a truly heinous defeat would impose on the party: with both the Blairite and Brownite factions shot to hell, a new, radical vision could emerge. New, red/green shoots. Unfortunately the Tories have made no secret of the fact that the electoral reforms they will undertake will be designed to shore up the lunacy that is First Past The Post while rejigging it to cancel out Labour's advantage (smaller constituencies in Scotland, Wales and urban areas, where Labour is relatively strong) - totally understandable given the current biases, but also totally reactionary.

What the country needs is radical electoral reform now. Alan Johnson as PM could deliver this in a few months with the help of the Liberal Democrats, then stage an election under the new rules this autumn, or at the latest, next spring. The need to deliver immediate and radical reform to the UK constitution - tackling MPs' expenses as well as the rottenness of the Westminster electoral system - is the ideal riposte to the many critics who would call for an immediate general election if the leader is changed. This may be the only opportunity we ever have to deliver fundamental political reform in the UK and it would be a shame to balls it up (no pun intended, Ed) now. So Alan: it's over to you. You can do it. All you need is Guts.

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