Not enough fire in the belly

Labour's younger ministers are competent and assiduous, but none has yet emerged as inspirational. W

So why has no one moved against Gordon Brown? Where are the bold spirits in the cabinet prepared to resign over 42 days detention without charge, as Robin Cook did over the decision to go to war in Iraq? Why has no single figure emerged as a potential rival to the Prime Minister?

These are not mere rhetorical flourishes, but questions now being expressed on a daily basis by Labour backbenchers and even some ministers. The obvious response is that any challenge to Brown would be a suicidal act of disloyalty. It would rip a still remarkably unified party asunder and trumpet the fact that Labour no longer believes it can win the next election. But that is not the whole story.

Imagine if, for instance, James Purnell or David Miliband resigned from the cabinet and returned to the back benches saying that the drift had gone far enough. They could announce that the position of the government was no longer sustainable and a new approach was needed. This individual could even have the luxury of resigning on a matter of principle: over the government's increasingly authoritarian anti-terror legislation, or the failure to stay on track with poverty targets. In all likelihood, the earth would swallow them up and they would be consigned to a life of obscurity for such an act of treachery.

But what a prize if they pulled it off. Even if the next election is already lost, the man or woman who was able to prevent a Conservative landslide would be well placed to lead the party through a short period of opposition before returning in triumph to Downing Street. In such extraordinary times, with public opinion so volatile, isn't it surprising that no one is prepared to take the risk?

The answer lies with the character of the younger generation of cabinet ministers, who came to political maturity under new Labour. With each potential candidate, it is possible to explain away their reticence. Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander are loyal servants of the Prime Minister, who owe their political careers to his patronage. They will never turn against him. Andy Burnham is too new to the cabinet and not an obvious coup leader. James Purnell lacks the necessary depth of support within the Parliamentary Labour Party. David Miliband had his chance last year and blew it. The only women senior enough, Ruth Kelly and Jacqui Smith, are not thought worthy of consideration.

It would have been a tragedy if this talented group of younger Labour politicians had never been given the chance to run a large government department. They have been, for the most part, competent and assiduous in their jobs. But none has yet shown him- or herself to be the kind of bold or inspirational figure that makes for leadership material.

In 2006, I dubbed this group of fortysomething politicians the "Adrian Mole generation", as they are the same age as Sue Townsend's eponymous hero and shared some of his capacity for tortured self-reflection. Along with their Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts, I suggested that they were likely to dominate the British political scene for the next decade. With David Cameron as Tory leader and Nick Clegg at the helm of the Lib Dems, that is now beyond doubt.

This group grew to adulthood between the miners' strike of 1984 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, so their ideology is not defined by the traditional left-right divisions. But the other defining event of their lives was the global economic recession of the late 1980s, which struck just as they were leaving university into an uncertain world. No surprise, perhaps, that many of them found refuge in the cosy, secure world of party politics. What this means, however, is that they are collectively defined by their instinct for caution. These are people psychologically programmed against taking risks.

One young minister told me recently that there is a great deal of frustration at the inability of new Labour's second generation to produce a politician with fire in the belly. "Where is the figure who will change the way we do politics? Where is our Barack Obama?" These are good questions. When David Cameron starts to offer himself up as the nearest thing Britain has to a candidate who represents "change we can believe in", then you know we are in trouble.

In its official guise, new Labour is more than ten years old. It is two decades old if you count the Kinnock years. Everybody knows it needs recasting. But it looks as if we will need to skip a generation before someone arrives with the guts to carry out the necessary revolution. We may not yet have even heard the name of the next great leader of the Labour Party.

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Gang of Four’s David Owen says Labour should “proudly and coherently” work with the SNP

The former Labour politician and SDP co-founder tells his old party to “face up to reality” and agree to ally with the SNP.

We don’t have an effective opposition. The question is how to make it effective. I think they should start to discuss with a view to deciding at a conference this summer on its policies. It’s just got to stop for a moment, have a pause on personalities. They’re going to have to return to personalities, they have to have a new leader. But at the moment, the issue should be: let’s get the policies right. I’m sure there are areas in which people want to see changes, but they’re obviously completely incoherent over Europe, so just let that incoherence lie.

If Labour party MPs can’t start to talk about why young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, they won't find the solution. Corbyn – you can trash him like the right-wing press do every day, but they've always done that with every form of Labour leader we've ever had. I’m not defending Corbyn, I don’t think he is the right person to be leader of the Labour party and become Prime Minister.

They've got to widen their base, and they've got to widen it in an election. That doesn't stop the party having more values. The Labour party instinctively, like the country, needs to move a bit more to the left. I'm not afraid of talking more about socialism and social values. I think that would be matching the mood of the country.

Clement Attlee and the Labour party came in in 1945, and shocked everybody, including all the pundits and newspapers – they responded to a mood in the country that wanted a difference. I believe there is a mood in the country that wants a difference. They don’t want recycled Blairism.

You’ve just got to face up to reality. The fundamental thing is, where we slipped up in [the last] election, is that we were not able to answer the question – when they were ravaged and savaged about the SNP – Ed Miliband should've lost his cool. All he said during the attack about working with the SNP was that it ain't going to happen. Well, it obviously was going to happen.

What they needed to say is proudly and completely coherently: if the electorate send a Parliament back which has the SNP in substantial numbers, it is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them. Health policy – a pretty good step would be to take what’s happening in Scotland and more or less mirror it.

That is the nature of the beast, which is democracy. Even without changing the system of voting, we now have multi-parties, whether we like it or not. We were told the route through was not to create a Social Democratic Party alongside the Liberals, you had to merge with them and that there was no room for more than three political parties in Britain. Well, it’s absolute nonsense. We now have seven, you could argue. We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.

I think it’s asking a hell of a lot to be leader of a party, asking to be Prime Minister, when you've never performed yourself in government, you've never held a serious job anywhere else. It's a very, very big thing. He didn't want to be leader of the party, he didn't expect to be leader of the party, he stood on the basis that he was the person they all turned to on the left, and he did it, and he surprised us all. The fact that he won should be a serious message to us. The reason he won is because everybody was totally sick and fed up with the other people. We've got to face up to the fact that this has happened now twice. Is the Labour party going to go on churning out a sort of mollified form of Blairism?

David Owen is an independent social democratic peer and co-founder of the SDP.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

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