A bold vision?

The talk at conference, a desire to hear a bold vision from Gordon Brown and Charles Clarke's curren

The New Statesman party is usually the first big event of Labour's annual conference and you can get quite a sense of how the week may pan out.

This time Charles Clarke was an early arrival keen to spread the word about his Sunday Times article in which he cheered on the idea of a leadership contest.

Clarke's not a popular figure in Manchester just now - neither with delegates nor senior party figures. Leave aside John Prescott's attack branding the former home secretary a "bitterite". One senior Labour figure told me that they could neither understand what had happened to Clarke - nor what he thought he was playing at.

"He's been there right at the centre of things for years and now look at him. What's he think he's doing?" they asked angrily.

I've been going to these conferences for nearly a decade and this is an odd one. Especially if you think back just a year. Then the atmosphere at the NS bash was feverish as we all speculated about a snap election.

It was virtually the only conversation. How things change and the talk now is whether Gordon Brown can survive.

Curiously it may be that fears over the economy are his best allies just now. It would be rash to trust either David Cameron or George Osborne with such a challenging situation. This needs more than a background in PR or the enthusiastic efforts of a former chorister - actually I don't know that about George but it just seems to fit.

After the NS party I went back into the security zone. Alistair Darling was having a drink with Neil Kinnock in one of the hotel bars and the Unite union bash was in full swing.

Some people at least seemed to be trying to have a good time and most seemed agreed that the prime minister is liable to come out of conference stronger than he went in. After that it will depend on what sort of direction he can give his party - and his government.

If nothing else it's time to shine the light on the Tories and their superficial transformation.

David Miliband does that writing on our conference blog. The foreign secretary pours scorn on Lexus Dave's progressive pretentions and insists Labour can win the next election. But it needs to set out a bold vision.

"The Tories now claim to agree with our goals. But David Cameron says that “progressive ends will best be met through conservative means.” And that is the new con, in Cameron’s conservatives. You cannot deliver progressive ends by Tory isolationism from Europe and Tory anti-statism."

In the meantime everyone is looking to see just what Brown's bold vision is.

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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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition