Out of the bunker

In the end the rescue package for the banks was the right thing but the Prime Minister stands accuse

At a time of national crisis, it seemed there was only one man with the experience and steadfastness of purpose to see us through these dark times. This had been the mantra since Gordon Brown's Manchester speech and, as the economy unravelled, it was beginning to gain purchase. It's spin. Of course it is. But there is a time and a place for propaganda, as the cabinet's latest addition, Peter Mandelson, knows so well. No 10 would not confirm that the Prime Minister was enjoying the situation. "'Relish' would not be the right word," said a Downing Street source, "but let's just say he's in his element."

Brown is at his best when forced into action and at his worst when he is left to brood over decisions. This was true of his first days in power, when he had to deal with flooding, the failed terrorist attacks on Glasgow and London and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. At the same time, the best aspects of Brown are magnified when he is acting on the international economic stage. Even his fiercest critics, such as Charles Clarke, concede that when it comes to the global financial arena Brown's contacts and access are unparalleled. As one Blairite cabinet minister said: "There's no getting away from it. He's just bloody good at that stuff."

An active Gordon Brown can be a dynamic Prime Minister. So he was well advised to head straight from the Labour conference to New York for discussions with the UN on poverty. For a while the action didn't stop. From New York he travelled to Washington to see George Bush and on to discussions with President Sarkozy in Paris. Barely catching breath for the reshuffle and the creation of the National Economic Council, he launched straight into a series of phone calls with world leaders and an emergency summit with the governor of the Bank of England and chair of the Financial Services Authority.

There is a political payoff in all of this. Every time Gordon Brown holds talks with an international leader or calls a summit with senior figures in the financial world, the British public is forced to ask itself whether David Cameron would have been up to the job. But the outcome could also be Churchil lian: a grateful nation may well thank Brown for seeing us through the war, by voting in a new man for the peace.

It is those periods Brown spends deep in thought in the Downing Street bunker that often prove his undoing and so it has been this week. There remain serious questions about Brown's ability to make the political weather rather than allowing himself to be buffeted by the storm of events. Clearly, the package was not hammered out on the back of an envelope in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Whoever is to blame for leaks over the weekend - Mervyn King, the Tories or the Treasury itself - the option of partial privatisation has been Plan B for a considerable time. Why then did Brown and Alistair Darling not roll out the plan on Monday or at least announce their intention as soon as the markets opened? Was it an ideological resistance to the nationalisation option?

The £500bn rescue of the banking system was, in the end, the right thing. But there will be a heavy reckoning for the failure to intervene sooner if share prices fail to rally after the rescue package. The Labour Party knows this. Following the reshuffle, Labour strategists have identified the three serious weak points that leave Brown vulnerable to attack from the Tories. The first is the perception that the Prime Minister is seen to have a difficulty with decision-making. Let's call this the "dither factor". As one senior figure said: "We have to be just ahead of the curve rather than just behind it." The second is the perception that the government is hamstrung by the level of public debt, which restricts its freedom to act. The third is that it did not set up the necessary regulatory framework to constrain the excesses of the banking sector. In this last case it faces the very real risk of being held directly responsible for the current downturn. All three areas of weakness have been hugely exacerbated by the banking crisis.

One explanation for the Brown government's delay in tackling the bank crisis is that new Labour still has an ideological resistance to intervening in the markets. Until events rendered such stubborn fundamentalism unsustainable, politicians of both major parties remained locked in a thought-system thoroughly unsuited to present circumstances. The return of Peter Mandelson to the cabinet table is all the more shocking for this reason. He will unquestionably bring considerable experience to bear from his work as the European commissioner for trade. But he has staked his reputation on his defence of globalisation and his resistance to protectionism. Some say his years in Brussels have persuaded him of the attractions of European-style social democracy. We shall see.

The reshuffle gave little evidence that the government was shifting to the left. The promotion of the right-winger Liam Byrne to the Cabinet Office, where he will co-ordinate government policy across Whitehall, was an important symbolic appointment signalling that the party was not shifting from its ideological roots. Like Mandelson, Byrne is a formidable administrator. But he has new Labour running through his veins and will not be providing a new philosophical paradigm.

For the most part, the reshuffle was thoughtful and considered - Brown took the time to phone many of the lower ranking ministers, something Blair never bothered with and often left to officials. It was right to give Ed Miliband his own department to run, for example, in order to test him at the highest level. Similarly, the promotions of David Lammy and Shahid Malik, both increasingly impressive, demonstrate that the Prime Minister is able to identify rising talent.

But the most significant appointment is one that didn't happen at all. The failure to find a job for Jon Cruddas, the most prominent figure on the soft left of the party, may prove to be a serious oversight. He was sounded out for the crucial job of housing minister in the Department of Communities and Local Government, but ministers took flight when he suggested that the state might have to step in to provide properties to ease the housing shortage where the private sector would inevitably fail in the present market conditions. Brown may come to regret his refusal to countenance the merest whiff of socialism when the government spectacularly fails to hit its target of 240,000 new units a year (this year a mere 80,000 have been built).

In the appointment of Margaret Beckett to housing, there could not be a starker signal that the party is opting for trusted new Labour solutions rather than seeking a radical approach.

For the time being, attention is focused on the inadequacies of the banking sector. But what are the government's plans for the construction industry, civil engineering or the manufacturing sector? What are the contingency arrangements when unemployment starts to rise? What happens to the regeneration agenda? Jon Cruddas is the only senior politician in Britain asking these difficult questions and he should be asking them from inside government, not from the back benches.

There are those in government, such as Ed Miliband, who argue that the new economic circumstances demand solutions from the social democratic left rather than the tired politics of the centre right. But his ideas have yet to make an impact in terms of hard policy. In his new job he continues to take responsibility for the manifesto so perhaps this will change as we come closer to the election.

Gordon Brown's predicament has been compared to those faced by former Labour leaders Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson. Parallels have also been drawn with the final years of the Major government. In the good times, Brown's aides liked to talk of him as the new Macmillan and now they would have us believe he has the dogged determination of Winston Churchill. None of the historical parallels quite work because Gordon Brown finds himself in a uniquely awful position, with his own set of challenging circumstances.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.