Gordon Brown has been seen on television hugging babies. Accompanied by his wife, he was visiting day care facilities, possibly to get some idea on how to deal with recalcitrant and misbehaving children, some of whom grow up to be expense guzzling Members if Parliament. Later in the same day, his parliamentary colleagues began their Star Chamber examination of those who have committed the most heinous offences in the “expensegate” scandal that has gripped British politics and crippled parliament.
Earlier this month he had dinner with David Blunket, disgraced former Home Secretary, and his predecessor, Tony Blair, stimulating speculation about a cabinet shuffle and an October election. Indeed, several former cabinet colleagues appear to have been consulted on a repositioning of New Labour shortly after the expected debacle of the municipal and European elections due on June 4th.
It doesn’t matter. Shuffling the deck chairs as a ship is sinking and changing its final destination will not lead to a turnaround in Labour’s fortunes. The party is finished, at least for a while. There are three reasons.
The first is that it has become irrelevant to the future of Britain. It continues to use old Labour party tactics to deal with a post-modern, post-carbon set of economic and social challenges. The party has no vision, no strategy and, most important of all, no new language to talk in direct and clear terms about what it stands for and what it is seeking to achieve. Worse, it seeks to use deception and obfuscation as its primary method of sounding authoritative when all know that it is bankrupt of ideas and desperate to cling to power. The April budget showed this deception, obfuscation and bankruptcy in crystal clear terms.
Second, as the expense scandal demonstrates, all political parties have taken the British people for granted and for a ride - New Labour, more than others. While the conservative party are not immune to the fallout from the scandal, it is the governing party that will take the blame. And so it should. The party’s history is “of the people, for the people” – not mention of “for myself, ripping off the people” you will notice. There is a sense in which a scandal for a conservative is expected and one for a Labour party representative is reprehensible – they are more likely to be on “our” side, it used to be thought, than the Tories, who have always been in it for themselves.
Finally, there is the Gordon problem. Anointed as leader – no one stood against him – and deteriorating in leadership, Gordon Brown is an all round dithering disappointment. He started badly, suggesting a quick snap election and then backing away once polling numbers suggested he may not win. He progressed haltingly and then he had a few successes. Just a few weeks ago he seemed to do well at the G20 summit, but its all gone now. And gone is what most of his colleagues wish of the Prime Minister. Alan Johnson, an amiable and affable foil, is touted by several as an interim replacement tiding the party through its inevitable defeat and managing the aftermath. But Gordon won’t go. He is too stubborn, too deluded and too myopic to think that his departure might actually do some good.
So now the question within the Party becomes one of solace. How can the party be relieved of its agony and politics in Britain move beyond its current preoccupations with scandal and back to the real business of British politics - reinventing Britain?
There are four things that need to happen for Labour. First, it needs a strategy for the New Britain. Forget New Labour, think about the country. Focus on what it will take to restore social and economic well being and the pride of the British people.
Second, it needs new leadership. A new leader and new faces throughout the key portfolios of government. A new generation. These new leaders, who need to be of a different generation from Brown, Mandelson, Johnson, Blair and have a new rhetoric of change, have much to do to rebuild the self confidence of the party. David Milliband comes to mind as a possible leader of this generational coup. It needs a very British coup.
Third, there needs to be an election and quickly. October is the earliest which makes sense, but only if the first two actions outlined here are in place. While no one likes February elections – especially those of us who have managed them – this is the better date. It gives a chance for new thinking, new people and new policies to develop and effervesce with the people.
Finally, Labour needs to plan for defeat and to use the time in opposition wisely. If it does not, it could be in the wilderness for as long as the Liberal Party – close to a hundred years. Smart opposition, planned policy development and a systematic approach to rebuilding the party from the ground up will all be needed to restore Labour to power within ten years.
But it needs to start now. Each day that passes without action on this agenda is another year of opposition. Get used to it.