As the increasingly fractious Labour tribes gather for the party's annual conference in Manchester, the air is heavy with the poison of regret. What if Gordon Brown had called a snap election 12 months ago, before the polls and the economy engulfed him? What if Brown's critics had stood a candidate in last year's leadership election? What if Tony Blair had faced down the challenge from rebels over the summer of 2006 and refused to set a date for his departure? What if Brown had followed Robin Cook on to the back benches over Iraq? What if Tony had had the guts to move Gordon from the Treasury for his serial disloyalty? What if that fateful deal struck in an Islington restaurant 14 years ago had never been made?
Political parties are at their most successful when they look to the future and provide a vision of the nation's collective fate. In its present introspective state, the Labour Party can do nothing but look to the past. It is haunted as much by the years of glory that followed Blair's arrival in 1994 as the years of shame that followed the Iraq War nine years later.
New Labour was a break with history, an attempt to move beyond the narrative of decline that had dominated the party and Britain for so long. But there are lessons to be drawn from this long list of "what ifs", because the consequences continue to dog the present government.
It is instructive to consider what would have happened if Brown had ignored what the polls were telling him and gone for a snap election. He may well have lost, but the likelihood is that he would have scraped back in with a reduced majority. He would have faced precisely the same economic conditions he faces now.
Northern Rock would still have collapsed; the price of oil and the price of food would still have risen. He would still have faced the fallout from his decision as chancellor to remove the 10p rate of income tax. In all probability, his popularity would have plummeted and his party would have plunged into a frenzy of plotting against his leadership. Yet there would have been one crucial difference: Brown could have claimed a personal mandate from the British people. Ultimately, this might not have saved him (it didn't help Margaret Thatcher), but it would have undoubtedly enhanced his authority.
If there is one thread running through the set of hypotheses above, it is this: in each case, democracy would have been enhanced if events had gone the other way. As this magazine argued at the time, Brown needed to seal his mandate with the British people by calling an election as soon as was realistically possible after he took over as Labour leader. There can now be no doubt that ministers and ex-ministers with reservations about his capacities as Prime Minister should have put up a candidate against him last year. As it is, he has been elected by neither his country nor his party. There is a pattern here. As one senior minister close to David Miliband put it: "We have been anti-democratic and now it is coming back to haunt us. From the Granita deal, to the way we got rid of Tony and anointed Gordon without an election, it just looks like we don't really believe in democracy."
This is why the rebels' tactic of asking for leadership nomination papers is so significant. It may come to nothing in terms of raising a challenger to Brown, but the point has now been made about the importance of injecting some much-needed democracy into the party. It is also why Harriet Harman, who was elected deputy leader in a fair and closely fought contest, must play a central role in any moves to shore up the Labour Party. She alone in the cabinet has the authority that comes with having been elected rather than appointed to her post, which is why she would also have to be part of any delegation urging Gordon to fall on his sword.
Last-ditch show of unity?
At the time of writing, the appetite for ousting Brown as leader seemed to have abated, at least at cabinet level. The atmosphere is so intense that it would be foolish to predict what could happen even 24 hours hence, but those who would back a Miliband leadership challenge seem to have decided that this is not the right time to strike. They are now talking about giving Brown until next spring. The call for a last-ditch show of unity by John Prescott, Alastair Campbell, Glenys Kinnock and Richard Caborn published in this week's New Statesman (page 37) echoes the views of many in the party. Long in the planning, this intervention should not be seen as a knee-jerk response to the rebellion, but a genuine, if belated, attempt to head off the crisis.
Yet, if the party is to survive, it must begin to show a greater respect for democracy. Conference itself provides a telling example of the way the party's own institutions have been hollowed out by new Labour, leaving a husk that represents no one and has no effect on policy.
As delegates arrive in Manchester for the grotesque charade that passes for democracy in the Labour Party, it might be worth them pondering one more hypothesis. What if we wait until after a Tory landslide for the next leadership election? With a reduced and demoralised parliamentary party, Labour membership in steep decline and the unions in open revolt, it is by no means obvious who would replace Gordon Brown, especially when some of the best candidates would have lost their seats. Compared to this scenario, a leadership challenge early next year could seem very attractive indeed.