There is something seriously distasteful about the way in which Gordon Brown has opened his Labour leadership campaign. He is not campaigning for a general election; he is not campaigning to become Prime Minister. He is, only, campaigning to become the leader of the Labour Party. So Brown should really spare as statements like the following:
I want to lead a government humble enough to know its place (*)
It is only a consequence of the system, and an unwelcome one, that, by becoming leader of the Labour Party, he shall also succeed Blair as this country’s next Prime Minister. Both the LibDems and the Tories have called for a general election when Blair goes. Neither believes in it, nor do they try to hide the fact that they don’t really want it either. The LibDems are shuttered, and they need time to pull themselves together. Possibly under a different leader. The Tories are on the rise, but they appear to think that they need more time to rise high enough to beat Labour. And the Scottish Elections results confirm that: Labour is so far ahead that it takes huge advantages in the polls to gain tiny advantages in the number of seats (it’s not just partial PR).
But this is not the point: the other parties call for a general election because they know they ought to; and they ought to because it is undeniably the fairest way of deciding Blair’s successor. The interesting thing is that Brown’s only argument for succeeding Blair without asking the electorate is that it has happened before – it happened with Major, for example. Now, it’s true that, in this country, in the absence of a constitution, past occurrences carry legitimacy. But they can only do so if they were themselves legitimate. In short, if there is any reason for thinking that a general election isn’t necessary. And Brown hasn’t provided any reason aside from the fact that is has happened before.
It could be proposed that the reason is the fact that the present Parliament has been elected to serve a full term, and that therefore, until that term expires, the present Parliament has the authority to elect the new Prime Minister. This is true; but it is also true that the present Parliament has been elected on the understanding the Tony Blair would himself serve a full term. Since that arrangement with the electorate has not been respected, the electorate is now due a general election.
But we aren’t gonna get a general election. And it is disgraceful that Brown is shamelessly campaigning to become Prime Minister. It is only the Labour Party that will have a say – not the country. So Brown should only appeal to the Labour Party, because the country is completely powerless. And here there is another detail of paramount importance: even if one accepted the previous argument about the legitimacy of the present Parliament, and their right, bestowed upon them by the people, to elect the new Prime Minister, it is indeed not the Parliament that will elect the new Prime Minister. It is the Labour Parliamentary Party, the Labour membership, and the unions. The latter two, evidently, don’t share the right that the MPs might have if one accepts the previous argument, which I don’t.
In short, we ain’t gonna get a general election – we’ll live with that even though it ain’t just nor fair. But at least Brown could show some respect for this country’s democratic system by campaigning, only, for the Labour leadership. One final point: it would also be a good way to distance himself from the Blair years if Brown gave the impression, from the outset, that he understood the difference between the Labour Party and this country’s government. They have been one and the same for the last decade, but they are two distinct institutions. And when a party begins to forget that, then it is time for that party to go – opposition is a very good cure for that kind of allucination.