Alas poor Gordon...

The crisis engulfing Gordon Brown's leadership is of New Labour's own making and any promises to lis

The vultures are circling over Downing Street. Labour’s defeat in the Glasgow East by-election was a disaster. This was supposed to be Labour’s third safest seat in Scotland and our 25th safest in the whole of Britain.

Such ‘meltdown’ figures would not of course be replicated in a General Election. But crushing defeat now stares the party in the face - the biggest crisis in Labour for a generation - and it is a crisis of governance and vision as much as of personal leadership. The great tragedy for the party is that most of the vultures circling around Gordon Brown would only perpetuate the crisis.

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.

For a couple of years now a group of 20 or so ex-ministers (mostly junior ones) have been meeting to discuss how they could maintain the flame of the Blairite revolution.

Not content to see that it lives on under Gordon Brown, discarded ambitions within the Dead Ministers Society pump out delusions that only a greater lurch to the Right can save Labour: accelerate privatisation, bring more private capital into public services, equivalents of Bush’s Project for a New American Century.

Meanwhile, back in Gordon’s bunker, the messages about ‘listening’ and ‘learning’ from each by-election defeat increasingly sound like the word ‘help’.

Sadly, Gordon does not appear able to reach out from the legacy of his own past. All the pronouncements are merely assertions that the policies that took us into this mess will ultimately get us out of it. You wish.

It isn’t credible to claim that Labour’s woes are all caused by the world outside. The economics and politics of our current impoverishment were constructed by the Blair/Brown leadership.

An obsession with off-balance-sheet accounting made public investment dependant on private finance.

Private finance demanded deregulation of financial markets. Banks were turned into casinos in the helter-skelter creation of credit.

The ‘safety net’ was supposed to be found in an ever rising spiral of property values. Such delusions chased themselves into absurdities and then into tears. It was where New Labour was always going to take us.

Domestically, the equivalent part of the process was in the neutering of government. Politics itself was outsourced. Ministers were in office, but not in power. Those promoted into office loved it, for they brought with them an ambition that was politics-free. They argued for the transfer of responsibility from parliament to an array of regulators, arms-length providers and private contractors, because it protected ministers from criticism.

The lightest touch of regulatory frameworks left parliament and government in a Pontius Pilate position. If anything went wrong it was “nothing to do with me, Guv”. But when it does go wrong government, quite rightly, cops the blame.

So it is that we end up in a summer of self-inflicted humiliation. The fiasco of pupil assessments (SATs), before children move on from primary to secondary school, illustrates the impoverishment of government. One inspired cartoon had a child sitting over an assessment paper and being asked if she was completing her SATs paper. Her reply was “No I am marking them”.

The same logic applies to the wave of local Post Office closures. Even though the Post Office is a publicly owned company, with a ‘universal public service obligation,’ Ministers declare themselves powerless to intervene in its running.

As energy companies cash in on the windfall profits of oil price rises and also hump 60 per cent price increases on the public, ministers shrink from ‘interfering in the market’.

No matter that it is pushing households in fuel poverty up from 4.5 million to 6 million. Government insists that market rules are set by the regulator, and that the regulator should have no responsibility for fuel poverty.

The emasculation of parliament and government has nothing to do with the big bad world ’out there’. It is the construct upon which New Labour built itself. No amount of musical chairs at the top will put this right if we don’t change the policies at the bottom. Doing so is not complicated, but it does require courage.

The next couple of years will be a global financial nightmare. The emphasis should be to repatriate capital wherever possible and to revisit the Roosevelt/Keynes doctrines in the form of a
Green New Deal

Stuff the notion of Gordon’s rules. In a recession the government must borrow and spend. Trade Union pension funds, looking for a shelter that will not wipe them out, should be re-directed into public bonds to fund public works.

Today’s political priorities would have to be found in the ecological infrastructure that will survive the 21st century, climate change and peak oil. None of this is beyond our reach, but none of it is compatible with the New Labour obsession with deregulated, neo-liberal economics.

The problem is that this is the world-view that Gordon and Tony created for themselves. It was supported to be their sanctuary, and their guarantee of greatness. Now it is the millstone that will sink them and anyone else tied to it.

Gordon could cut the ties before any of his ‘friends’ cut his throat. The trouble is that neither he nor the encircling would-be wannabes have the courage or vision to do so. The choice may thus be between a Greek or a Shakespearean tragedy.

Alan Simpson is MP for Nottingham South

The original version of this article wrongly attributed difficulties with SATs examinations to a company called EDS. In fact it was ETS. We are happy to clarify this point.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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