Hitchens on Brown

Christopher Hitchens savages Gordon Brown in the latest issue of Vanity Fair and calls on the Labour Party to dispose of him immediately. He writes:

For many years he waited as a resentful dauphin, swallowing his envy and bile. And then, like the fruit of the medlar tree, he went rotten before he was ripe

He also recalls the shameful treatment of foreign minister Ivan Lewis who had the details of his flirtatious text messages to a female colleague leaked to the News of the World after he had the temerity to call for a more progressive tax system. Around the same time Alistair Darling was disgracefully smeared as a political innocent after correctly stating that we had entered the worst financial crisis for sixty years.

But for all the sins of Brown's aides, I think it's a mistake to simply source Labour's woes back to his leadership, as Hitchens does. It was under Blair that the party haemorrhaged members and had its councillor base decimated in the post-Iraq 2004 elections.

The casual assumption in much of the media that Labour was destined to win a fourth term until Brown entered Downing Street is wide of the mark. Very few parties anywhere in the world win four successive terms in office. That Brown has been unable to reverse Labour's decline is as much down to the hollowed out party he inherited as it is to his own weaknesses.

Elsewhere in the piece, Hitchens's recollection of his time in the Labour Party is a reminder that a man often thought to have begun his activist days on the Trotskyist left in the International Socialists was first attracted to the centre-left.

"In the political battles of those days, about inequality and exploitation, about nucler weapons and apartheid ... one went to a Labour Party meeting expecting, and getting, a fight over important matters of principle," he writes.

His early break with the social-democratic left over Harold Wilson's support for the Vietnam war does much to explain why, when he abandoned socialism, he didn't simply retreat to a more moderate branch of the left.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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