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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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