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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.