Until the electoral tsunami struck on 1 May, the Labour Party was in a state of denial. Ignoring warning signs of the catastrophe about to come, the government collectively walked headlong into the storm, keeping its eyes closed and hoping for the best. Gordon Brown may never recover, and even if he does, the clean-up operation could take many years.
Nothing in the new Labour handbook took account of this eventuality, so a whole generation of MPs finds itself for the first time in a position where the Tories are in the ascendancy and stand a realistic chance of winning the next election. In the early hours of 2 May it was obvious, as the colour drained from their faces, that the young members of the cabinet, sent out to television studios to defend the government’s record, were not prepared for the sheer impact of the defeat.
The denial took many forms. Thanks to the erosion of the Labour Party activist base, national politicians had received no clear picture of the potential scale of the 1 May disaster. Why did the party machine not realise that the haemorrhaging of members was, in itself, a sign of dissatisfaction among the wider public? Because it was still blaming the collapse of support on everything other than the root cause: that people have fallen out of love with Labour. So, whereas previously it had blamed Tony Blair or the war in Iraq, now it was blaming the instability of the global economy.
The starkest manifestation of Labour Party denial came in its stubborn refusal to recognise, until it was too late, that Ken Livingstone’s City Hall was an accident waiting to happen. Rather than deal with issues raised by the media, including the New Statesman, about the running of the Livingstone administration, ministers hoped against hope that Livingstone would pull off a third election victory. Cronyism, flirtation with the Islamic extreme right, drinking on the job, profligacy with public money: these are all matters people take seriously. That the Labour leadership failed to extract from Livingstone a commitment to reform City Hall before giving him their endorsement is a sign of how desperate they had become for a win in London at any price.
The soft-left campaign group Compass boldly announced the death of new Labour after the results came in. It is one of the few groups that has been producing an alternative vision for the future of the Labour Party. This would involve a return to core values based on a commitment to equality, defence of the public sector from further incursions from business, and an end to interventionist foreign policy. But Compass’s credibility was damaged when it threw its weight behind the Livingstone campaign in London, signalling that it, too, was refusing to face up to reality.
Fingers in ears
The response that ministers will now listen and learn from the public is a curious one, because the message from the British people in the local elections was that they do not want the Labour Party in power. It is difficult to see what listening will do now when senior Labour figures have been standing with their fingers in their ears for so long.
At the moment, there is little evidence that Gordon Brown has a serious strategy for winning the next election and there has to be a suspicion that the Prime Minister still does not realise how grave the situation has become.
Charles Clarke’s article for the May issue of the Blairite magazine Progress, calling for the party to recognise its failures and weaknesses, is a significant intervention in the debate. Much of what Clarke wrote was a direct attack on Brown. His call to end the “dog-whistle” language of “British jobs for British workers”, for instance, refers to Brown’s speech at last year’s Labour party conference. And “the black arts of divisive inner-party briefing and bullying which . . . inhibit debate and discussion about the future” is a swipe at Brown’s allies whom Clarke believes have run a whispering campaign against him.
But where this goes further than simple score-settling is in the former home secretary’s recognition that the denial must stop. Clarke argues, for example, that Brown must give up his plans to extend detention without charge for terror suspects to 42 days, immediately. This is something the New Statesman has been saying for months, otherwise the Prime Minister will sleepwalk into another back-bench rebellion, with untold consequences for his already damaged authority.
Despite his calls for unity, Clarke knows that merely by writing his article he exposes the faultlines opening up under the new Labour coalition. One young minister called me after the local elections to say that it was now impossible not to recognise that Gordon Brown was part of the problem. Here, the Labour Party is in a terrible bind. To fail to admit there is an issue with Brown’s leadership style is to continue with the culture of denial that has proved so damaging. Yet any public recognition of those doubts is sure to split the party and ensure defeat at the next election. In more ways than one, the Labour Party just can’t win.