Future Labour leaders are like buses, sometimes you wait for ages without seeing one and all of a sudden three come at once.
This was the experience for the audience gathered in London on 3 November for a debate about the future of the Labour Party. Its doom-laden title was “After New Labour”. The speakers included Harriet Harman, who won the party’s deputy leadership election last year. Close friends have been urging her not to stand in the event of a vacancy, but she is still riding high in the betting to replace Gordon Brown with odds of 10-3. (Only David Miliband is better placed according to the bookies.)
Jon Cruddas, another former deputy leadership contender and MP for Dagenham, was also present. There is no doubt he will be urged to stand by the centre-left of the party should Gordon Brown not survive the next election.
But the organisers of the event, the Guardian and Soundings magazine, had also invited Chuka Ummuna, 30, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Streatham. Ummuna is an impressive lawyer who is already being talked up as Labour’s Barack Obama and the party’s next leader but one.
This may seem an odd moment to talk about successors to Brown when there now seems no realistic prospect of him being replaced before the next election. But the discussion is already well-advanced within the Labour Party itself as the debate demonstrated.
Cruddas and Ummuna did not mention Gordon Brown, and expressed the need to move beyond the new Labour settlement. Harman herself was not prepared to go so far but said: “If anyone is getting any political satisfaction out of the present economic crisis, they shouldn’t be.” This was a peculiar statement from the deputy leader, considering the only person who appears to be getting any such satisfaction from the economic crisis is the Prime Minister himself.
Chuka Ummuna is a bold young politician with an easy public presence. If he wins the Streatham seat he will be fast-tracked into what is still likely to be the shadow cabinet. He has none of the cautiousness that characterises the fortysomething generation that now dominates (numerically at least) the Brown government. He is no Obama yet. But he is prepared to depart from the current government line in a way that would simply not have been acceptable for a candidate in the buttoned-up Tony Blair era. He believes, for example, that there should be a higher top rate of tax for those earning more than £100,000 a year, and believes that the institution of Prime Minister’s Questions should be abolished or reformed.
He is also fearless in his criticism of suggestions from the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, that the government could row back from its commitment to flexible working. At one time it would simply not have been possible to cross Mandelson and survive. But Ummuna knows his political life is likely to be longer than the man who may yet turn out to be Gordon Brown’s Sarah Palin. His dissent is a sign that the next generation of politicians will not be so ready to accept the authority of the founders of new Labour as the Miliband-Purnell-Balls crowd.
Jon Cruddas is a more immediate threat to the new orthodoxy, which states that the Prime Minister has turned his fortunes around thanks to his handling of the economy. Cruddas is fast becoming the most impressive politician on the back benches. He has a robust and consistent theory of the future of the party entirely absent from the government itself. On the other side of the Channel, Cruddas would be described as an intellectual. While recognising that the crisis in the global markets represents a crisis for parties of the centre-right, he also warns against centre-left triumphalism. Speaking of his sense of foreboding, he pointed out that this could turn out to be “a distinctly Labour recession”.
But what is most striking about Cruddas is his capacity to come up with genuinely new ideas. He has proposed, for instance, revisiting the decision to renew Trident and diverting the money instead into boosting the living conditions of frontline soldiers on active duty and at home. He believes a similarly imaginative solution should be found to channel money from the hugely expensive ID card scheme into more practical security measures. Such moves would be extremely popular.
More immediately, he is urging the government to intervene directly in the housing and construction industries in order to ensure that a homelessness crisis is not the inevitable result of the recession.
It is now probable that Gordon Brown has saved his party from oblivion at the next election: something some only felt would be possible as a result of the Prime Minister falling on his sword. But there remains a deep unease on the Labour back benches that the collateral damage from the summer’s civil war has been too great.
The long-term consequences of the savaging of David Miliband at Labour party conference are yet to be fully grasped. Whether they like it or not, senior Labour figures need to think now about Brown’s successor, even in the event of a Labour victory at the next election.