The question exciting political commentators and restless members of the Parliamentary Labour Party is when Tony Blair will go and Gordon Brown take over. This is clearly a crucial question, but it is worrying that there has been neither much discussion of what difference this will make, nor of how a change of leader could restore trust and ensure that the third-term Labour government pursues the promised “progressive consensus”. Many former Labour activists and supporters remain of the view that Blair is unfit to be Prime Minister because of Iraq, and make clear that they will not return to Labour until Blair has gone. Yet even those whose measure of success is simply the retention of power are becoming aware that there is a real danger that the unpopularity of the Prime Minister, combined with the mess in Iraq, a weakening economy, growing inequality and demoralisation in the public services, will lead to further Labour losses in local government elections, a continuing crumbling of party membership and a Labour wipe-out in 2009.
I share the view that the deceit over Iraq requires a change of leadership to restore Labour’s honour, but with Brown having come out strongly in support of Blair on the matter during the election campaign, a simple switch from Blair to Brown will not guarantee that we correct what has gone wrong. Brown could, at his best, be the instrument through which Labour restores its pride, values and electoral success, but if he is shuffled into place late in the parliament, having to defend all that has gone before and inheriting an increasingly unpopular government with an “unremittingly new Labour” agenda, it is unlikely that he will be able to turn things around.
David Blunkett has told us that those who call for a change of leadership are being self-indulgent, and Peter Hain says we have just been given a clear mandate to implement our manifesto. But the victory was shallow. Thus, the mandate is very weak. Moreover, many in the Parliamentary Labour Party do not support the government’s approach to ID cards, the prevention of terrorism or the special relationship. Those who spent the past four weeks on the streets will know that the Prime Minister’s support has diminished considerably, and the sudden restoration of his partnership with Brown was crucial to holding on to the votes we did win.
MPs with seats where many of our poorer citizens live will also be aware that life has got somewhat better for poor pensioners and families with children, but we are still a grossly unequal country. There is a growing crisis of access to decent, affordable housing. Despite extra money, the targets, central control and bureaucracy put in place to drive public sector reform are undermining the pride of those who work in the public services. Many schools and neighbourhoods still suffer from bullying, insecurity, disorder and blight.
And when we turn to foreign policy, the government will remain haunted by the mess in Iraq and instability in the Middle East. We are told repeatedly that we must not live in the past and that it is time to move on from Iraq, but the consequences of the errors are still with us. The situation inside Iraq is disastrous, with unemployment, disorder and suffering feeding the insurgency and continuing to destabilise the region. It is also increasingly clear that George W Bush has no intention of holding Israel to the promises of the road map, and that Israel intends to expand its territory, creating a series of Palestinian bantustans rather than a state based on the 1967 boundaries. Blair’s support for Ariel Sharon’s Gaza plan suggests he may be happy to go along with this. If so, he will continue to help the United States to undermine the UN and international law – and the anger of the Middle East will continue to fester.
As such, a progressive consensus requires a real debate in the Labour Party about British foreign policy. Is the “special relationship” its centrepiece, as it has been for all postwar prime ministers except Edward Heath? Should we commission a new generation of nuclear weapons? Should we provide facilities for the US planned national missile defence which, in providing an umbrella to protect the US from nuclear attack, makes US weapons more usable and is likely to quicken the arms race? Is there an alternative British role in the world, using our influence at the EU, the UN, the Commonwealth, the IMF and the World Bank to work with others to create a more just and sustainable world order that begins to face up to the challenges of environmental degradation, global warming and world population?
Labour’s achievements in domestic policy in the two terms since 1997 have rested on Gordon Brown’s successful steering of the economy and the release of resources for public services. Rockier times lie ahead, however; the quality of public services is being compromised by the pressuring and demotivation of the workforce. And Labour’s foreign policy is now dominated by its close alliance with an extreme right-wing American administration, so that a Labour government has ended up supporting a strategy which undermines the UN and international law.
We urgently need a change of leader to begin to put things right. But Brown needs a vibrant and progressive debate, generating ideas and demanding a new and more open style of government, if we are to bring out the best in him. There is a real danger that time will run out and soon it will all end in tears, with Iraq emblazoned across the chapters that explain the failure of Blair’s new Labour project.