Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
26 June 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

Six months to save Labour

The government looks doomed, and it may even be heading for its own May 1997-style catastrophe. If

By Nick Cohen

On a hot Saturday in June, 1,100 people gathered for a conference in Westminster organised by Compass, a liberal-left pressure group which thrashes out the arguments about what on earth Labour should do after Tony Blair has gone. Given the scandals and the blunderings, the plummeting membership and the dire poll ratings, the indifference of the general public and the derision from the public-school media, I was expecting a wake, and a dismal, alcohol-free wake at that. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a revivalist rally.

For a few hours it was possible to believe that Labour could renew itself in office and win next time. Everything about the conference augured well. There were no Trots, and very little left utopianism or academic obscurantism. The presence of young and interesting speakers showed that Labour politics wasn’t yet a rest home for the elderly and eccentric. The quality of the speakers was high in general and the quality of the questions from the floor matched it. Compass was founded by former special advisers and workers for the leftish think-tanks that had once believed in Tony Blair. Although disillusioned, they retained the belief that you can’t change anything without winning power. And that was good to see, too.

As I sat on the grass outside and gazed at the forbidding façade of Westminster Central Hall, I wondered if the government’s position was as forbidding as it appeared. The Tories have based their revival on ignoring their core vote and moving leftwards. If only Labour could regain its poise, I thought, it could set the terms of the Conservative surrender, exposing David Cameron as a phoney if he didn’t accept genuinely centrist policies, or driving a wedge between him and most of his supporters if he did.

Meanwhile it seemed to me that the flip-flopping of the Liberal Democrats could be as useful to Labour. They deserve far more attention than they get, because they are the kingmakers of British politics. They usually win a fifth of the vote or more, and which rival party they take votes from usually decides whether Labour or the Tories win power. Charles Kennedy was their most successful leader since the 1920s because he managed – brilliantly – to win the votes of Conservatives in the south of England and Welsh and Scottish borders while moving into the Labour heartlands in the north. He never made the mistake of allowing his party to be pigeonholed as “left” or “right”, because pigeonholing would alienate potential supporters.

After the shabby assassination of Kennedy, Sir Menzies Campbell seized the hollow crown and made the mistake his predecessor had tried so hard to avoid. He has turned the Liberal Democrats into a tax-cutting centre-right party which is getting “tougher” on crime by the day. Sir Menzies had to do it because of the threat from the Conservatives in his southern and rural seats, but his U-turn will take the pressure off Labour as the Lib Dems devote most of their energies to fighting off the Tories. An added bonus for Labour is that, in an age in which superficial media images rule, Sir Menzies looks and sounds like a caricature member of the old ruling class – which goes to show that superficial media images don’t always deceive, because that is exactly what he is.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Maybe the sun was getting to me, but I put together the enthusiasm that the Labour movement can still inspire and the potential difficulties of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and I thought that perhaps this government wasn’t going the way of the Major administration after all.

Then six questions hit me, and my optimism cracked . . .

What’s happened?

Sunder Katwala, the general secretary of the Fabians, dragged me off for a beer and complained that no one knows what to think because there is no agreed “narrative” about this government. The supporters of Tony Blair and, to a lesser extent, the supporters of Gordon Brown believe that it has taken centre-left politics about as far as politicians can take them in modern Britain. Its agenda for the future is essentially more of the same. Nearly everyone at the Compass conference maintained the opposite. For them the years since the 1997 victory were not a triumph of the possible but a shocking waste of the best radical opportunity of their lifetimes. They want a new radical programme with more redistribution and more democratic reform.

To understand how grave this division is, consider how the Tory party destroyed itself in the Major years because it could not agree on the answer to one simple question: was it right to depose Margaret Thatcher?

Katwala could have gone on. For some the Iraq war destroyed Blair’s reputation, an analysis that leaves open the possibility that Labour will revive when Blair goes and memories of Iraq fade. For others, Iraq has magnified deeper worries about spin and incompetence that will haunt Labour regardless of who its next leader is. For some, the anti-war movement provided the foundation for a new liberal left; for others it was a betrayal of all the principles of the liberal left.

The truth of any of these propositions doesn’t matter. Political commitment is not about the true state of the world. It is about what the politically committed think the world ought to be. Successful political movements must therefore have an agreed analysis which propels them to change the world, and it matters less than it probably should whether that analysis is true. I can make a case that Cameron’s explanation for past Tory failures is wildly mistaken but, because enough Conservatives believe it, Cameron is rejuvenating his party.

By contrast, the majority on the liberal left, from the cabinet down, does not have a way of explaining the past decade to itself and others, and therefore cannot answer the second question . . .

What do we do next?

Staggering away from the thirsty Fabians, I went to hear Polly Toynbee speak. It struck me that, in all the new Labour years, she and her Guardian colleague, David Walker, have been the only leftish intellectuals to do a serious analysis of what this government has achieved, for good and ill. Despite living in a 24/7 media culture which promises that it will scrutinise everything, there are few other tough-minded audits. In modern Britain the media will tell you all you want to know and more about what John Prescott did to his secretary, but they won’t help you understand what John Prescott did to the English regions. This failure to analyse, by politicians as well as journalists and academics, is crippling because, without an acknowledgement of the liberal left’s mistakes and the proposal of remedies, the public will believe the left is filled with blinkered men and women who are too vain and shallow to learn from experience. (A majority may believe that already, by the way.) Equally, without the acknowledgement of its successes, the inane dominance of the left by nihilistic Chomskyites and gormless satirists will continue. Speaking of which . . .

Who do we talk to?

On the next floor up from Polly Toynbee, Mar-tin Bright, of this parish, was responding to the Sutton Trust report which showed how the children of the wealthy dominate media life. It gave statistical backing to a point people like me have been making for years: an inevitable consequence of the comprehensive-private split in education is that the rich are more firmly ensconced in the best jobs than at any time since the 1930s. “The editors of the Guardian, Observer and New Statesman are all public-school boys,” explained Bright, “as am I.”

Conservatives get the British elite wrong when they complain that a leftish bias extends far beyond the liberal press (where it is to be expected, after all) into broadcasting and other cultural industries. It does, but Conservatives don’t see that the bias is an upper-middle-class, public-school version of leftism, which doesn’t necessarily help centre-left governments, not least because centre- left governments increase the tax burden on public-school leftists.

You are never going to hear Sir David Hare or Rory Bremner saying: “I deplore the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein but I must give Labour credit for improving the lot of under-fives in Tyne and Wear.” Poverty is beyond the experience and, possibly, the imagination of gentlemen from Lancing and Wellington colleges, and its relief does not stir their souls. For an adminis-tration whose main achievement is tackling poverty the lack of support from the most raucous voices on the culturally dominant rich left is a handicap – it may even be a problem for a Cameron administration, if it is serious about helping those at the bottom of the heap.

The only available tactic is to go on the offensive, and point out that Jeremy Paxman, Sarah Montague and the other opulent beneficiaries of a society designed for the few make unlikely tribunes for the toiling masses. Attacking them won’t do any good – the media are worse than the judiciary at taking criticism – but at least it will make Labour supporters feel better.

What do we talk about?

The Major government remains the most despised of modern times, not because of what it did, but because of how it did it. The Tories in their decadence reacted to events instead of facing them. The initiative was always with others, whether they were George Soros and the foreign exchange dealers, who ran their economic policy, or Slobodan Milosevic, who dictated their foreign policy in the Balkans.

On the back of my Compass agenda, I scribbled a list of problems this government is going to have to confront in the next four years which the conference-goers weren’t discussing. What do we do when the public spending boom busts? What services have wasted the money they were given and how should they be punished? What should be the constitutional relationship between England and Scotland? Is the centre left still pro-European and, if so, what does that entail these days? When and under what circumstances should British troops leave Iraq? Will green policies that hurt living standards ever win mass support in a democracy? For how long will liberal leftists deploy cultural relativism to excuse the sexism, blood lust, homophobia and racism of the Islamist far right?

The liberal left may not want to hear all of these questions, but they will be posed none the less, and the public will despise a Labour government under Gordon Brown or anyone else that dodges them and waits for outsiders to come up with the answers.

How do we speak?

I don’t go to many political conferences and was taken aback by the inability of the modern Labour politicians to find the right words. I heard Ed Miliband speak about poverty, and thought that he was clearly a decent man, and that it was a fine thing that he was in government – but Christ Almighty, there are Slovakian personnel officers who treat the English language with greater tenderness. Even his title, “Minister for the Third Sector”, makes no sense to the overwhelming majority of the British public. (It is something to do with charities, if you must know.)

At the end of his speech Miliband wisely admitted that “we need to find a progressive language of the common good”. Indeed we do. But the good Labour has done has been done silently and secretly in case the middle classes were upset. I fear that it has bitten its tongue so often it can no longer use it. This may be the first political party in history to render itself mute.

What to do about Brown and Blair?

This should be the first question on my list because, for most people I met at the Compass event, the power struggle was all they wanted to discuss. The feud dominates everything: politics, the bureaucracy, political journalism and all the hopes and fears of Labour supporters. I’m not a lobby correspondent and don’t know the full internecine horror of what is going on, but even an innocent such as me can see that the chances of this government being wiped out by a mutually assured destruction pact between these two men range from the probable to the certain. Obviously, ministers and senior MPs need to take charge. Equally obviously, there is no sign of them doing so.

My guess is that six months, or a year at best, remain in which to find convincing answers to these questions. If the liberal left ducks the challenge, Labour will endure its own May 1997 at the next election and the Tories will be back for a very long time.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action