Dark days for Brown

Is the situation worse for Gordon Brown than it was for John Major in the dying days of the last Tor

It's all looking rather bleak for Gordon Brown. In fact, if you agree with veteran Conservative politician John Gummer, the situation's actually worse for the prime minister than it was for John Major as his government faltered to extinction.

Writing this week on newstatesman.com, Gummer says: "I fought my first election more than forty years ago and I can’t remember anything comparable. Even as a cabinet minister living through the dying days of John Major’s Government - attacked on every side and beset by swivel-eyed revanchists – it wasn’t like this."

The ex-environment secretary expresses sympathy for Brown adding that he finds the sharpness of the attacks "disconcertingly unfair". You can read Gummer's article here.

Meanwhile David Miliband writes in the Guardian about the odds being against a Labour victory when Britain next votes and talks about turning it around for the party by offering real change. He doesn't mention Gordon Brown at all. And nor did he later rule out a leadership challenge. Although he did insist he wasn't running a campaign.

Either way ex-minister Denis Macshane thinks Miliband was spot on.

Writing on newstatesman.com he berates critics of the foreign secretary: "Instead of welcoming his rallying call to attack the Tories and to support the Government and prime minister the briefers are back running Labour into the ground. I hope Miliband continues to make his case and the maggots briefing against him are squashed."

Meanwhile Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is in bullish form arguing her party has everything to play for after the summer recess.

Like Miliband, Smith is keen to remind us of what she sees as Labour's achievements. But does anyone want to listen?

In the past few months I've been to a couple of meetings organised by the Fabians with Labour MPs and others to talk about presenting a vision for the future. At the last gathering - just as parliament was breaking up for summer recess - I suggested people needed to be reminded of the number of new schools and hospital buildings built since 1997. I also suggested they get local people (activists or otherwise) to tell the story of how these services have improved lives.

Under the Tories the health service creaked. They were like landlords running down a listed building until everyone agreed it had to be demolished. They had the same policy with the railways - privatisation of BR along with the citizens' charter being the memorable legacies of that political era.

Fortunately Labour was elected in time to save the NHS and many of the facilities are scarcely recognisable compared to when Major was chucked out of Downing Street. I haven't even mentioned portacabin classrooms.

There have been achievements - they need to be trumpeted. But, yes, there also has to be a vision for the future - maybe universal free school meals or a bonfire of the quangos as part of a wider vision for a more transparent, accountable government.

Whatever Labour can claim, it certainly isn't that it ruled for all the people. Whole parts of the UK remain stuck in a kind of economic purdah unseen, for the most part, by the rest of us.

The authoritarian controlling tendencies of New Labour have helped no-one except David Cameron who, astonishingly, is managing to sell himself as reasonable and quasi-progressive.

Opponents of the New Labour project from within the party meanwhile are quick to return to old battle grounds.

Alan Simpson is a good example in his article for newstatesman.com in which he writes:

"For months now, a group of ex-ministers have been cruising the corridors and cafeteria of Parliament in search of stray Labour MPs to descend on. “Carruthers, dear boy/girl, we haven’t spoken for ages, but have you got a moment? What are we going to do about Gordon? He is leading the party into disaster. I know you don’t want to lose your seat at the election, but what do we do?”

"If we were children, the process would be called ‘grooming’. It has little to do with the well-being of the MP or the party. Most of the approaches are coming from the remnants of the Blair Witch-Way Project, looking for a way back to power. Their interests are more in shafting the Labour Party than in saving it."

I suspect it's going to be a very silly silly season...

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.