Yesterday Labour was humiliated in a by-election triggered by Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death. And Labour’s former PM Tony Blair had a near-death experience. Add those two events together and what you get? In the next two years, the Labour Party had better look after its MPs very carefully. It wouldn’t be very Labour, but they might want to seriously consider private health care and private security for their precious Members of Parliament…
For a while now I have been trying to articulate my judgement over Blair’s decade in office. Unsurprisingly the PM does it for me. Read here (hat tip: Camillo). But especially the following passage says pretty much what I think about Blair’s achievements:
Social exclusion needs special focus. From 1979 to 1997 the incomes of the richest 20% in Britain grew faster (2.5%) than the incomes of the poorest 20% (0.8%). That has been reversed. Since 1997 the incomes of the poorest have risen faster (2.2%) than the richest (2%). However, this masks a tail of under-achievers, the socially excluded. The rising tide does not lift their ships. This issue of social exclusion is common throughout Western nations (emphasis mine).
As often, Bush’s simple straight-talk gets it right: yesterday, in meeting Blair for the last time, Bush referred to Brown as “the next guy”. Not as Gordon Brown. Not as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Not as the future Prime Minister. Just the next guy. I guess it will always be like that for Brown, the guy that came after Tony Blair.
Can i work with the next guy? Of course.
When Meacher pulled out on Monday, I thought that the leadership contest was on. I was wrong. It is now Wednesday evening, and it is looking increasingly likely that John McDonnell will not get the required 45 nominations. At 6pm, he is still 16 short, and there are only 16 MPs that have still to declare (among those, Charles Clarke and Frank Field): Brown has 307 against McDonnell’s 29.
UPDATE: it’s over. Brown’s got 308 and McDonnell has conceded defeat. This is a sad day for British democracy.
Some considerations on this development: I was expecting Brown not only to let McDonnell run, but possibly to encourage a challenge. Apparently he hasn’t done so. Two possibilities: Brown is indifferent on whether there will be a contest or not because, we can only guess, he has polls telling him that the public won’t mind either way. Labour’s support might be falling, but the fall won’t be accelerated – or so the polls might predict – by a ‘coronation’. If such polls existed, and were accurate, I would be surprised. It definitely wouldn’t be good news for British democracy.
Alternatively, Brown might be actively looking to avoid a contest. Maybe he thinks that McDonnell’s support among unions and party members would be high enough to put him in an uncomfortable situation. The next government might then be forced into acknowledging so much support for Old Labour in its policies, if not in its composition. If this latter scenario is anywhere near the truth, then all the more reason for wanting a contest; because if Brown’s fears are justified, then the Chancellor is effectively silencing his own electorate by stopping McDonnell. And that can’t be good for politics; it can’t be good for Britain; it can’t be good for Labour’s chances at the next elections; and therefore, in the end, it can’t be good for Brown (caveat: it might be that Brown has convinced himself that he will lose at the next general elections, and that therefore he wants to make the most of his time in government. In that case, stopping McDonnell might make sense. But I don’t believe that Labour doesn’t have chances coming 2009, nor do I believe that Brown believes that).
Another interesting thing is that Milburn is supporting Brown, while Clarke hasn’t announced yet. It might be that the former Home Secretary is waiting to see McDonnell’s numbers, and that he is only willing to nominate him if that will turn out to be necessary for a contest. Indeed, McDonnell is miles away from Clarke, but my enemy’s enemy… On the other hand, it might be that Blairites want Brown to lose at the next general elections, and so are promoting a ‘coronation’ – see Milburn’s and Byers’ support. Lots of people would like to think that the Blairites are willing to do anything to screw Brown, but I would be very surprised if that included putting their own political careers and salaries at risk – as inevitably they would do by promoting Labour’s defeat next time around.
One final remark: if we take the way in which MPs are nominating seriously, from a political point of view that is, then we might have to conclude that the kind of leftism represented by John McDonnell is really no longer at home within the Labour Party. And this would have to be added to Blair’s legacy: “I left a Party where socialists couldn’t even get enough nominations to stand for leader”. In this respect, it is indeed a shame that to represent the left is someone which such ideological foreign policy ideas such as McDonnell (see IRA+Iraq).
Oh, and Alex Salmond is the new First Minister of Scotland.
Brown got what he wanted (or, anyway, what he should have wanted): a contender who cannot win, John McDonnell. This is a much better outcome than no contender at all, which would have looked bad and it would have reduced Brown’s and Labour’s chances at the next general elections even further. It is also better than a Blairite contender with a chance, namely Miliband. Even if Brown would have defeated Miliband, which is probable, that kind of contest might have weakened New Labour; and, in the attempt to distance himself from Miliband, Brown would have probably lost a lot of the votes that will decide the next election. The only outcome which would have probably been better for Brown than McDonnell would have been an unelectable Blairite like Reid – who was wise enough to desist from his heroic journey of self-sacrifice.
McDonnell’s good for Brown: he will provide the Chancellor with a platform to discuss Iraq, and, if Brown cares to, that will be a chance to distance himself from Blair’s foreign policy. But Brown might discover that the only meaningful way to counter McDonnell’s anti-war rhetoric is to stick with Blair’s legacy of liberal interventionism: that would, indeed, be an interesting development. Otherwise Brown might end up in the kind of middle-ground trouble that Hillary’s in across the pond for not apologising over voting for the war.
Also, while the parliamentary vote is quite obvious, and the unions’ vote can be expected, it’ll be important to see how the popular vote goes: if McDonnell doesn’t do better there than in the parliamentary vote, then a lot of the anti-NewLabour rhetoric will have to go. There has been a lot of talk of New Labour losing votes on the left (the SNP in Scotland could be an example): this is a good time to verify that theory.
It might be objected that the kind of votes that New Labour has lost on the left aren’t votes of Labour Party activists and members. But that’s not how it is often put: people tend to say that, in the pursuit of Middle England, Labour has alienated some of its core vote. If none of that goes to McDonnell, then either New Labour has actually interpreted its core vote better than most commentators, or it has alienated it so much that people have left the party altogether.
UPDATE: it looks as though we should have waited before commenting on McDonnell’s challenge to Brown. The left-winger is still 18 (some say 16) nominations short of the required 45. He’s got until tomorrow noon.
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.
(hat tip: Gus)