Amidst scandal, plots and anxiety, the British Labour Party begins its annual conference this week in Brighton. It will be its last as the governing party, unless some major upset occurs between now and the general election, expected in May. Things are so serious that a tribute evening for Gordon Brown, to be held during the conference, has just three hundred people attending in a venue booked to seat eight hundred.
The scandal concerns the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland. Using a law she herself developed, she was fined £5,000 ($8,740) for hiring someone not entitled to work in Britain as her cleaner. Despite this offence, she continues in office. The tradition is that the Attorney General should be “beyond reproach”. Gordon Brown, Britain’s beleaguered Prime Minister, is standing by his Dominican born Minister, elevated to the peerage in 1997. This scandal, which many have already dismissed as minor, comes at the same time as another Minister, Baroness Vedera, steps down as Business Minister to pursue a non-paid role as advisor to the G20.
The plotters are led by “the usual suspects” – former Ministers under Tony Blair and those in the party concerned about the potentially devastating loss in the coming election and the likely loss of their own seats in parliament. The focus of the revolt is on seeking to retain power or, second best, secure credible opposition party status at the next election. They fear a massive defeat at the hands of David Cameron’s Conservative Party, which is some thirteen points ahead in polling – enough for a landslide win. These same polls show that some seventy one percent of voters are unhappy with Gordon Brown’s performance as Prime Minister.
The plotters have three problems. The first is that Gordon Brown has demonstrated that he is unwilling, no matter what the carrion calls are, to leave office unless its due to terminal illness. Second, the plotters cannot find a champion willing to take on the task of David slaying Goliath. The plot has no credible leadership. The third problem is that, even if Brown went, there is no time for a new leader of the Labour Party to turn around this dying political tug boat which, in the minds of the British public, is a tired and worn-out boat in need of a long period in dry dock.
John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister under Tony Blair, rightly observes that there is a need for caution when looking at opinion polls. In 1970 the Labour Party went into the election with a sixteen point lead and lost to the Conservatives. In the 1992 election, Neil Kinnock as Labour Leader was clearly winning until he began to behave as if the election was over – the public rapidly turned on Labour and the Conservative’s won. So much can happen between now and May.
But it all now depends on Gordon Brown. John Prescott described him this week-end as a “global giant” who pulled the world back from recession. Others are seeking to position him as a global statesman – a fitting man to lead Britain. They contrast his global statesmanship with the youth and inexperience of David Cameron and posit that Britain needs a steady and proven captain to the steer the ship of state through troubled times. The reality is that Britain is in trouble. It has massive deficits and public sector debt, it has a growing set of issues of education and schools which Labour has failed to tackle in its twelve years in power and there is a social malaise and sense of political alienation which permeates all regions of the country. Britain needs change – it is almost tangible in any conversation about politics.
Gordon Brown, despite his public commitments, will not change. He is what he is and cannot change. He has been at the heart of the Labour party for twenty years and at its head since the early 1990’s. He thinks what people want is action. In an interview at the end of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh last week, he said "I think what people are saying is that until they can see the results of all the action we have taken in getting the economy back to recovery, they have suspended judgment. I accept that I have got to show people that the action that we have taken is bringing results and will bring greater results in the months to come." He thinks results will “speak for themselves”.
The Conservative Party is leading the charge for a new era of austerity – demanding cuts in this fiscal year so as to lower the expected budget deficit of £175 billion ($305 billion). They claim that the fiscal stimulus, coupled with the increase in the supply of money in the system, will lead to massive debts which will burden the British economy for years to come. They also claim that public spending and the role of the State under labour are becoming out of control and that less, not more, government is what the people want. Their double digit lead in the opinion polls, consistent since the beginning of 2009, suggests that they may well have captured the mood of the British people. Brown’s counter is that the Conservative proposes massive cuts to public programs which will ride roughshod over peoples’ needs and expectations – Labour’s traditional response to austerity measures.
It will be an ideological election as well as an election about Gordon Brown. Unless David Cameron makes a major blunder, Brown will lose and the Labour Party will wonder why it did not act to forestall both the defeat itself and the scale of the defeat. While its true that “a week is a long time in politics”, the eight months between now and May is even longer and a lot can happen. But it will take a miracle to save Labour now.