In this editorial from the New Statesman & Nation, as it was then, the magazine sets out its opinion on the upcoming Labour Party leadership debate. The best person to lead Labour in the mid-Nineties would have been Robin Cook, this leader writer argues, but he chose not to go for the top job. Instead it is Tony Blair who is now “virtually unstoppable”, simply because he has no credible challenger. John Prescott and Margaret Beckett are too much of the “old left” – Eurosceptic, against proportional representation and “lukewarm” on environmental issues. Blair is considered among pundits as a “man of ideas”, but this writer warned that his views on numerous policy issues remained at that point unknown. How did he feel about European integration, electoral reform or Ireland? It was as yet unclear, but it would be essential for Labour “that Blair is not elected to the leadership before being made to give a full account of his political credo”.
By the time most readers of NSS get this issue, voting in the European election will be over and the runners in the Labour leadership contest will have declared – as indeed will the non-runners. But as we go to press the only certainty is that Gordon Brown will not be putting his name forward. All the others who have been mentioned as possible contenders have kept their intentions to themselves as planned.
All the same, it is increasingly likely that the best person to lead Labour into the next election is not going to be in the race at all. Robin Cook has this week apparently been swayed by his poor showing in opinion polls of Labour Party members and supporters not to go for the top job. Far and away the most intelligent and radical of all the would-be contenders – and easily the most effectively combative in the House of Commons and as a public speaker – he seems to have decided that standing would mean risking humiliation and subsequent demotion from his current job as Labour’s trade and industry spokesperson.
Many of Cook’s supporters will be disappointed, and with reason. He is the most able representative of Labour’s libertarian left, a political tendency that deserves a voice in the leadership contest. Given that his economic policy differences with Tony Blair are nowhere near as big as those between Bryan Gould and John Smith, there is no reason to expect that he would have been given the Gould treatment in the event of a Blair victory.
As it is, however, if Cook sticks to his decision not to run, Blair is now virtually unstoppable. The reason is simple. Put bluntly, there is no credible challenger apart from Cook. Of the two hopefuls who seem almost certain to run against Blair from the left, John Prescott cannot win and Margaret Beckett has even less chance. Both Prescott and Beckett are generally admired in the Labour Party, and each has undoubted qualities. Prescott is blunt, pugnacious and sharp-minded, and Beckett has an unrivalled head for detail.
But neither, unlike Cook, is widely considered to be leadership material. On the level of image, it is difficult to imagine Prescott living down his reputation as a loose cannon or Beckett suddenly acquiring a television manner that matches the warmth of her off-air personality. More important, both are out of tune with the politics of the time. They are very much of the old left – Eurosceptic, against proportional representation for the House of Commons, lukewarm about green politics. Neither will get more than grudging support from the increasingly important part of the Labour left that is pro-Europe, pro-PR and environmentalist.
At least, however, Prescott and Beckett have the capacity to give Blair a real political test. More is known about Blair’s views than was before John Smith’s death – but he is still very much an unknown quantity. His position on law and order is by now familiar, as indeed is his line on trade-union rights. His speech last Thursday in Eastleigh, much praised by the weekend papers, endorsed the approach to economic policy developed by Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, in the past two years; and he has made a string of speeches outlining his ideas about a new sort of democratic socialism involving a changed relationship between the individual and the community.
But too much of this political philosophising is high-sounding flannel, and the range of policy areas on which he has said nothing is surprisingly large, particularly considering his reputation among the pundits as a man of ideas. Indeed, it is just about impossible to find more than a soundbite on such crucial policy areas as European integration, electoral reform, defence and security after the cold war, Ireland, the future of the welfare state or the effects of global warming – in fact, just about everything that has not fallen directly within his brief since he was catapulted into his first front-bench job a year after entering parliament.
This is not to say that Blair has no opinions apart from those required to function as a shadow minister. Nor is it to cast aspersions on his effectiveness as shadow home secretary or on his ability to lead Labour. But the lacunae in public knowledge of his politics cannot be overlooked. Forget the cynics’ argument that his lack of ideological baggage is his greatest strength: it is essential for Labour (and indeed for the country as a whole given the party’s standing in the opinion polls) that Blair is not elected to the leadership before being made to give a full account of his political credo. A hard-fought leadership campaign “on the issues”, as Tony Benn would put it, is a must.
When Blair wins, his first priority will have to be to unite the party. Even if his support is at the levels suggested by the opinion polls, there remains a substantial minority of Labour MPs and ordinary members (including, it seems from anecdotal evidence, most of the activists) who are underwhelmed by the prospect of Blair as leader. His performance during the leadership campaign might change their minds – but the likelihood is that he will need to be generous to the left if he is to avoid demoralisation of activists and polarisation of the parliamentary Labour Party in the run-up to the next election. Offering Robin Cook his pick of the top three shadow cabinet jobs is the very least he should do.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).