Forget Blair – it’s Brown or bust

"Brown can't win" will become a self-fulfilling prophecy unless Labour casts it aside.

On the day Tony Blair testified at the Iraq inquiry, I bumped into a leading cheerleader for the former prime minister. "Your generation will now have to put up with a Tory government for the next decade," he said, jabbing a finger in my direction. "And it's all your own fault." How might that be, I wondered aloud? "You continue to do down Labour's best ever leader and instead push Gordon Brown on the rest of us . . . Gordon can't win."

I have heard many versions of this lament - TB good, GB bad; GB can't win against David Cameron; if only TB was still in charge - ever since the "election that never was" of 2007. I am neither a Brownite nor a Blairite; both were architects of "New Labour" and its misguided neoliberal ideology. But I am driven to wonder why so many in the Westminster village and the media continue to sanctify Blair and his record in office.

Yes, the former premier won three general election victories for Labour. That is a historic achievement. Between 1997 and 2005, however, Labour shed four million votes. Membership of the party halved, to below 200,000, so that Labour approaches the next election with a shortage of volunteers to stuff envelopes or canvass voters during the campaign.

And as for those three victories, it is often overlooked that by 2005 more people stayed at home than voted Labour. Only the vagaries of the electoral system gave Blair a comfortable, 66-seat majority on just 35 per cent of the vote.

Defeat defeatism

The role Brown played in helping to win those elections is also routinely ignored. Despite his shortcomings as a prime minister, he remains one of the most formidable political campaigners of the age - even his predecessor acknowledged the weight of the "clunking fist". But his critics on the right of the party remain unconvinced. One cabinet minister was recently heard to say, "We're fucked under Gordon."

The Blairites today remind me of the Trots of old, who wished for Tory victories in order to "sharpen the contradictions" between the ruling and the working classes and thereby hasten the end of capitalism. For rather different ends, the Blairites who have plotted against Brown seem to want Labour to lose, and look forward to a period of "creative renewal" in opposition. They certainly don't believe that Brown can win. "The more the public see of Brown in the campaign, the more they'll dislike him," says one well-known fan of Blair's. "I predict a Tory majority of around 40."
There is almost glee in his tone.

What explains this treacherous desire to see a Tory victory?

What provokes discredited Blairites such as Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt - "dumb and dumber", in the words of the blogger Will Straw - to attempt coups just months away from a general election?

“Some of them see the election of Cameron as the ultimate compliment for their hero," says a friend of the Blairites. "He is, after all - unlike Brown - the self-professed heir to Blair." This mindset prevails at the very top. Lord Levy wrote in his memoirs that his friend Blair "told me on a number of occasions he was convinced Gordon 'could never beat Cameron'".

But is such defeatism justified? Is Cameron really heading for an easy victory and a healthy majority? In recent days, the Tories have been shaken by a series of polls - three from YouGov, one from Ipsos MORI and one from ComRes - putting their lead over Labour at between 9 and 7 per cent. If such figures were replicated at the election, the result could be a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party. The Ipsos MORI poll even suggests that if all those backing a party were to turn out at the polls, the Tories' support would fall from 38 per cent to 34 per cent, making Labour the largest party in a hung parliament. (So much for the junior min­ister who told me recently that the party cannot afford to be distracted by playing "to its base" or shoring up its "core vote".)

Operation Rally

We shouldn't get carried away. Much will depend on Labour's performance in those Middle England marginals most hostile to Brown.

Peter Kellner of YouGov, in a hard-headed survey of the polls published in these pages last month, wrote: "If the Tories secure a 9-point lead, they will probably achieve an overall majority." But as his fellow senior pollster Bob Worcester has argued, "The key figure in any polling analysis is not the lead but the share, especially the share of the opposition party." He points out that more than 40 per cent indicates a strong possibility of an overall majority; 40 per cent or less guarantees only a plurality of seats (that is, more seats than Labour). Ominously for Cameron, none of the recent polls puts the Tories on more than 40 per cent.

Perhaps the most significant finding from the recent polls, however, is the changing perception of Brown. His critics have glossed over this. Although Cameron remains the most popular party leader, his approval ratings are in decline. Meanwhile, Brown's personal ratings are up, according to both Ipsos MORI and YouGov, which has him 7 points up on last summer.

All this suggests that Labour might not be "fucked" under Brown after all. But the danger is that the "Brown can't win" meme becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the popular policies pushed by the government in recent months, such as the 50p tax on high earners and the one-off tax on bankers' bonuses, become obscured by personality politics. Meanwhile, the Tories get a free pass, in spite of a narrowing in the polls and their inconsistencies and shifting positions on everything from the married tax allowance to "swingeing" cuts in spending.

Whether Blair's followers like it or not, Gordon Brown, newly emboldened, remains leader of the Labour Party. To cheer for Labour is to cheer for Brown, even if through gritted teeth. There is no going back and there is - to borrow a phrase from a Tory premier - no alternative.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street