The propitious start to Gordon Brown’s first year as Prime Minister – the calm and statesmanlike response to the foiled London and Glasgow terror attacks, the summer floods and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth – all now serve only to highlight how dreadful things became in the months that followed.
The crucial “hinge”, when the fates turned against Brown, was not the cancelled election of October 2007, but the Northern Rock crisis that preceded it. In an act of complacency, the Labour Party wandered into last year’s conference season believing its own propaganda that the mythical fourth term was all but won. The vainglorious briefing about the possibility of a snap election was a symptom of the state of denial the party was in.
If Alistair Darling is to be believed, the warning signs were already there. He knew the worsening economic situation in America was likely to hit everyone in the UK. And although at first the British public seemed persuaded that only Gordon Brown could be trusted to deal with a worsening economy, as the reality of the situation emerged, the new Prime Minister’s reputation for competence was hugely undermined.
Errors inherited from Brown’s final Budget as chancellor, especially the abolition of the 10p tax rate, hit sections of the core Labour vote not likely to be forgiving to a prime minister they had had no hand in electing. A year on from Brown’s coronation, the Labour Party is in the worst place it has ever been. The future looks bleak for what was once called the progressive consensus.
Shift to the centre
Those closest to Brown still believe he can win the next election. They have to. They say that we are living through times uniquely suited to progressive solutions. The British electorate has shown that it wants the party of government to protect the National Health Service, safeguard the interests of the most vulnerable, and offer educational and economic opportunities to the “many, not the few”. Even the Tories accept this (at least rhetorically).
But their argument is not entirely convincing when the Labour Party faces a 20-point deficit in the polls. It may be that 11 years of Labour government have forced the Conservatives to accept the progressive, social-democratic consensus on a range of issues from the minimum wage to public-sector spending. But this acceptance, and the shift to the centre ground that goes with it, may itself help towards a Conservative victory at the next election.
There is such an air of pessimism in Labour circles at the moment that it is hard for sympathisers to imagine a way out. Party finances are so bad that it would have been near impossible to put up a candidate against David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election, even if the party leadership had the nerve to do so. Various scenarios present themselves: the implosion of the Labour Party in a blur of Seventies-style infighting; the emergence of a new radical faction on the left; an über-Blairite coup. None seems particularly attractive.
But a new survey of a hundred political experts by the PoliticsHome website suggests that the announcement of the death of the Labour Party may be a little premature. The panel was asked not what should happen, but what was likely to happen. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (politicians as well as academics and pundits) felt Labour was likely to become increasingly divided; but only 19 per cent thought this was potentially terminal.
In policy terms, most felt Labour was likely to hold to the centre ground. Most (60 per cent) said it would become the champion of the “enabling state” but would not become unduly interventionist (by renationalising the railways, for instance). Nor would it shift to the right by privatising new parts of the health, education and criminal justice systems. It was felt likely that it would raise taxes by stealth (20 per cent) rather than through income tax (just 3 per cent) and would not indulge in populist tax-cutting measures.
The experts were also asked which faction of the Labour Party was likely to become dominant in the years to come, and here the results were genuinely surprising. Not a single panellist thought this group would emerge from the hard left and just 6 per cent thought it would come from the moderate left, as represented by the 2007 deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas and the Compass pressure group. The panel suggested that neither Brownites nor ex-Blairites had much of a future.
A solid 24 per cent felt that a group of so-called “Real New Labour” MPs such as John Denham and Angela Eagle represented the party’s future. This eminently moderate group has been arguing for some time that Labour has to maintain its southern Middle England vote but without buying in to the worst aspects of Blairite free-market fundamentalism. However, nearly half of the panel felt there would be no dominant faction in the near future.
Could it be that the Labour Party is growing up, that it won’t tear itself apart after the next election, even if it loses? Wise heads have already suggested that Labour should fight the next election as if it were an opposition party. The PoliticsHome survey suggests that it could even survive opposition and rebuild itself as the party of the progressive centre. We live in hope.