Leader: It’s time to pass the baton to the next generation

Labour's future depends on the intellectual baton being handed to its brightest thinkers

In last week's issue of this magazine, we lamented the trivial bickering and crude electioneering of the party leaders as the election approaches and asked: "Where are the ideas? Where is the vision? Where are the policies to create a fairer and more democratic society?"

Despite three consecutive and historic general election victories for the Labour Party over the past 13 years, the triangulations of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson have left mainstream progressive politics in the UK intellectually hollowed out, bereft of an animating or compelling vision of "the good society".

Courtesy of a new, tell-all book from the former Labour Party general secretary Peter Watt (see page 16), voters have discovered that even the Prime Minister's closest allies share this view. The International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, a long-term ally of Mr Brown, is quoted as saying shortly after he entered No 10: "You'd imagine that, after ten years of waiting, and then ten years of complaining about Tony, we would have some idea of what he was going to do, but we don't seem to have any policies."

Mr Watt himself is scathing about Mr Brown, accusing the Prime Minister of having "no vision, no strategy, no co-ordination". He adds: "Gordon was simply making it up as he went along."It has been a torrid week for Mr Brown and his party. The Watt revelations emerged in the wake of a botched coup attempt, led by the former cabinet ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt. These very public divisions at the top of Labour are disabling an already weakened government. A new Populus poll gives the Tories a 13-point lead over Labour.

Interestingly, and dismayingly, neither Mr Hoon nor Ms Hewitt could point to a single policy associated with the Prime Minister with which they disagreed. Those who seek to topple Gordon Brown do so because of personality, and not policy. They have nothing new to offer.

And yet, in recent days, perhaps prompted by this latest failed putsch, there have been stirrings of intellectual ferment - indications that a younger generation of Labour politicians is turning, even at this late stage, towards the arduous business of beginning the long-term political renewal of the progressive left.

In a fascinating essay, the 39-year-old former cabinet minister James Purnell called for "a radically different vision of society" and excoriated the party's bureaucratic, managerial and technocratic tendencies. Few, if any, other figures in New Labour have been as unequivocal as Mr Purnell was
in rejecting Thatcherism as "an often wicked period of our national history".

The former work and pensions secretary, having conceded that he failed to set out a policy alternative upon resigning from the cabinet (on the night of the European elections in June), endorses a series of progressive redistributive proposals from London Citizens, a grass-roots coalition of community organisations and faith groups. These include redirecting 1 per cent of the bank bailout money towards recapitalising local areas, improving the pay of working people through the Living Wage and capping extortionate interest rates.

Meanwhile, in a separate article, the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, author of Labour's forthcoming election manifesto, who is 40, argues that the party does have a "different vision about the good society and who to stand up for". Mr Miliband calls for the economy to be rebuilt in a different way, "with more jobs in real engineering, not just financial engineering".

Meanwhile, 42-year-old Douglas Alexander, tells our political correspondent James Macintyre, in an interview on page 14: "Our generation - a younger generation than Peter Mandelson and Gordon - is not ready to hand over this country to a party that we think has the wrong solutions for the people we came into politics to serve."

A generational shift is under way and the future of the Labour Party, if not the wider progressive left, may depend on the intellectual baton being handed to its brightest thinkers - both inside and outside the cabinet. The problem is that any substantive policy pronouncement by a senior member of cabinet is seized on by the media, obsessed with talk of coups, cabals and backroom manoeuvring as evidence of personal ambition.

This is a pity, as there are core issues - from reining in City excess to constitutional reform to the war in Afghanistan - that are too important to be viewed through the distorting prism of a leadership campaign.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power