Monday, July 27, 2009

What's Next for Labour ?

In late September, Gordon Brown will face the Labour Party in Conference in Brighton, England. The following week David Cameron will face the Conservative Party in Conference in Manchester. Both will be interesting events.

Gordon Brown has survived several attempted very British attempts to oust him as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party. He survived through a variety of means, including threats, bribery through the offering of positions and promises. The key promise he has made several times in his career is that he will be changed and chastened by “recent events”. The most recent event was the loss of a parliamentary seat in a by-election in Norwich. Formerly a safe Labour Seat with a 7,000 voter majority, it is now a Conservative seat with a 5,000 voter majority – a significant loss. Brown has again vowed to change. No one expects him to do anything different. He is a lost cause.

David Cameron, who was careful not to gloat over the Norwich victory, has won a lot of support for his commitment to increase taxes and reduce public expenditure by cutting programs. The strategy is simple: tell the truth about debt, deficit and excess in government and then offer to be the guide to a more responsible and austere future. He has already identified several ways to reduce the size of government – reducing the number of quasi-governmental organizations (Labour created over 1,000 of these since coming to office), reducing duplication and inefficiency and then cutting programs that do not enhance the quality of life or are not valued by their “customers”. There is a strong appetite for “responsible, lean government” and Cameron has become the champion of this message.

Labour continues to believe that the next election will be fought over a simple ideological battle. Labour will position itself as a caring government that will continue to invest in public services, while they brand the Conservative as a mean bunch of business men who are in in politics to line the pockets of their business friends. The Conservatives will label Labour as not working and is profligate in public spending. They will point to a slow recovery from recession, 20% unemployment for people aged 18-24 and the largest debt load since the end of the second world war and point to the facts. Provided no serious gaffes occur, the Conservative Party will form the next government.

In July, the Conservatives are some fifteen points ahead of Labour in the latest survey of voting intentions – a lead that would give them a 72 seat majority. Some polls have the Tory lead much stronger. The election will be held sometime between this coming October and May 2010. The Norwich by-election suggested that voters would show their distaste for politics by either not showing – less than 50% of voters participated in the election – or by voting strategically, including voting for “other parties”. In the most recent polls, Labour may have to fight for second place with the Liberal Democrats, who are just five points behind Labour.

A lot can happen in ten months – Harold Wilson, a former British Prime Minister, observed that “a week is a long time in politics”. There are likely to be events which will permit Gordon Brown to show his skills in making difficult decisions under pressure – as he showed on a number of occasions early in his Premiership. There will also be dangerous moments for David Cameron – a slip of the tongue, dissent within his party, a wrong-footed policy can all quickly create what has come to be known as “reverse momentum” or “slippage”. But the die is cast. It’s a

Conservative victory that is now theirs to loose.
One development could help Labour. If the European Union finally manages to secure its constitution – known as the Lisbon Treaty – after forcing the Irish to vote again and Tony Blair becomes the first President of the EU, then he would have a pulpit to support the ailing “New” Labour Party which he re-launched with Gordon Brown and Peter (now Lord) Mandelson in 1994. Blair is an eloquent, charismatic leader and could do much to revive the fortunes of the governing party in Britain. He would need to take care not to be seen to interfere, but there are ways in which this could be done.

But this is a long-shot. Brown is done and his party recognize that their days of power are numbered. A number of senior figures have already indicated that they will not be running in the next election and many others are looking at the back-benches as a place of respite from the tribulations of governance. Some are considering when to begin their run at the leadership, vacant already in all but name. Most of all, Labour politicians are settling their financial affairs and considering life after politics. Gordon Brown is probably polishing his resume. If he isn’t, he should be.

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