Saturday, July 26, 2008

A clear and demonstrable collapse

Crewe. Henley. Glasgow East. Are the voters trying to tell us something? Here's today's Newcastle Journal column.


When in years to come, historians pore over the long, slow demise of New Labour, the series of by-elections in the spring and summer of 2008 will, I believe, be seen as a crucial period.

First there was the catastrophe in Crewe, after the contest held in the wake of Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death saw David Cameron’s Tories win their first seat off Labour for nearly 30 years.

Then it was humiliation in Henley, as Labour lost its deposit and slumped to fifth place behind the British National Party and the Greens.

Finally, on Thursday night, the earthquake in East Glasgow, after Labour’s hitherto third-safest seat in Scotland disappeared to the Scottish National Party on a 22pc swing.

As he surveys the wreckage this weekend, Prime Minister Gordon Brown must be cursing the malign combination of political circumstances that forced him to fight three by-elections in as many months.

Had they not taken place, he might by now have been able to shore-up his position and even build some political momentum. As it is, a clear alternative narrative is now emerging.

There can be no writing-off these results as a short-term protest vote such as happened in the post-Iraq War by-elections in the predominantly Moslem constituencies of Leicester South and Brent East during the last Parliament.

No, the story of the three 2008 by-elections is of a clear and demonstrable collapse in public support for Labour in general, and Mr Brown in particular.

What is particularly damaging about the Glasgow East result is that this was a revolt not of the swing vote but of the Labour core vote, which now seems to be bleeding away.

When the by-election date was set for July 24 – two days after the start of the summer Parliamentary recess – there were those who claimed it had been deliberately timed to minimise the threat of MPs plotting against Mr Brown.

If that is the case, then Mr Brown’s strategists have clearly never heard of email or the mobile phone.

Labour MPs may be scattered to the four winds this weekend, but expect the lines to be humming between the beaches of Europe and beyond.

As it is, a number of Labour MPs and ministers will not be sunning themselves, despite the current unaccustomed spell of decent summer weather.

Instead, they will be at the party’s national policy forum in Warwick, discussing the contents of the next Labour manifesto with the trades unions and grassroots constituency activists.

Ostensibly, the conference is about whether or not to implement a.long shopping list of demands ranging from scrapping NHS prescription charges to the reintroduction of secondary picketing.

But the subtext will be the position of Mr Brown. To paraphrase the Bible verse, when two or three Labour activists are gathered together, the talk shall quickly turn to the leadership.

Up until now, the prospects of a successful challenge to Mr Brown have been hampered by the absence of a clear alternative candidate, but if one is to emerge, then now is surely the time.

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell set out his stall this week by publishing a Green Paper on welfare reform, advocating the scrapping of Incapacity Benefit and making those out of work for more than two years work full-time in the community.

At one level, it demonstrated that there is intellectual life in New Labour yet, in terms of fresh ideas which could underpin what would be an unprecedented fourth term in power.

But at another level, it was hard to escape the conclusion that it was designed as a piece of pre-leadership election positioning, a warning to Foreign Secretary David Miliband that he is not the only Blairite pebble on the beach

Despite his undoubted intellect, though, Mr Purnell carries the air of a lightweight about him and his election would manage the considerable feat of making Mr Cameron look statesmanlike.

South Shields MP Mr Miliband remains the man to beat, although it seems clear he will not be the one to raise the standard of rebellion.

His old alliance with Health Secretary Alan Johnson could be key. The two were education ministers together under Mr Blair and became huge admirers of eachother’s work.

Mr Johnson has said he is not up to the job of Premier, but the idea of him playing John Prescott to Mr Miliband’s Tony Blair could be an increasingly seductive one.

Mr Brown’s instinct will be to plough on. We read this week that he is planning a September reshuffle, the centrepiece of which will be to bring back Margaret Beckett as the government’s chief apologist, or “Minister for the Today Programme.”

Now Mrs Beckett has been a loyal servant of the nation, and despite an undistinguished spell as Foreign Secretary, she was rather harshly treated when left out of Mr Brown’s first administration last year.

But if the Prime Minister really believes that bringing her back into a senior Cabinet role is going to restore his or Labour’s political fortunes, it demonstrates how out of touch he is.

Increasingly, the view among Labour MPs is that the only minister Mr Brown should consider reshuffling is himself.

A dream scenario for Mr Brown is that no clear challenger emerges over the course of the coming weeks, and he restores his authority with the conference speech of his life in September.

But such has been the scale of the public backlash against the government in recent months that it is unrealistic not to expect his leadership to now be openly called into question.

The corresponding nightmare scenario for the Prime Minister is that, against a backdrop of dissension and even open revolt, he makes a poor speech which reinforces the speculation about his position.

Sadly for him, this seems overwhelmingly the likelier of the two outcomes.

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richard t said...

Whilst I agree with the tenor of your article, I think there are special considerations on the Glasgow East result which perhaps modify its significance. Labour in Scotland is in disarray with the resignation of the party leader under less than creditable circumstances (the pot having been expertly stirred by the SNP). By most accounts the candidate was the 5th choice. The local party had never had to work for a victory and against the SNP, who can pull out the stops like the Lib Dems to fight very hard, they were already on a hiding. Finally the election was called with no notice for Glasgow Fairs when a good lot of voters will either be away or not interested. Add to that the timing of James Purnell's benefits initiative and the wholly understandable wish to teach Labour a lesson and you have an unwinnable seat.

My point is that on this particular, generalisations are perhaps a bit shaky.

Incidentally in your catalogue of labour misery what happened to the London mayor and Boris?

dirty european socialist said...

The PM recovered from losing ana eye and a child. I am sure he recover from losing a by election. All he needs is a few mtonsh wihtout an election. Problem is he has had an election every month and no chance to build up a recovery. Every time he gets up there is another punch to knock him down. He just needs some elections free montsh to get back his composure then i think we can win.

Anonymous said...

The PM is a man of great mentla strength and intelligence he will recover like he allways does and he will win win win and win again.
The Blairites should stop kicing the party down. Glasgow was just a protest vote. it was 19% swing.

stephen rouse said...

I wish I could share the optimism shown above. But it's all over...
Brown's tragedy is not that he's going down, but that he's going down without even trying to reverse some of the damage of the Thatcher/Blair consensus. Meanwhile the noises coming from Cameron in the past few weeks - particularly the Glasgow speech - suggest the nutters have won the battle for ideas in the Conservative party. We're not going to get hug-a-huskie Dave as Prime Minister, we're going to get the guy who re-wrote a couple of Richard Littlejohn columns in 2005 and called it a Manifesto.
Maybe there's hope for the Scots, if they can break away and establish a European-style Social Democratic system. But England and Wales are condemned, regardless of the party actually in power, to a perpetual night of the free market, with all the concomitant social divisions and tensions.
Boy, am I depressed...

Dirty Euro: said...

The PM has saved the lives of millions of Africans thanks to his massive increases in aid to the continenet It is an issue of deep importance to him. He is the opposite of Hitler. He save lives, Hitler took the lives. Blair killed this leader saved. I suppose it goes to show the old story nice guys finish last. Maybe he should have just killed like Hitler did he would have won a landslide.
Joe public is scum.

Anonymous said...

Certainly agree with you about how out of touch Brown and his government have become.

Whilst the average voter is struggling to pay their food bill,pay their energy bills and fill up their cars;the government is banging on about 'Equality' and making it more difficult for white males to get jobs.

Mark said...

A good post Paul. I think the consensus is that Brown is going to go.

I feel slightly depressed by that - he has by no means been sparkling, and his clear discomfort in front of the cameras does not make him the ideal leader for a 21st century party, but the scale of the media assault on him is out of proportion with his mistakes.

I think Prescott's point about the ill-advised nature of putting someone wet behind the ears in charge at the height of the biggest economic crisis in 20 years is a good one.

As an aside Paul, was surprised to see an ad for Scientology on the blog. You a fan?

G Eagle Esq said...

but Richard T

It took 300 Spartans to dislocate the Persian Empire at Thermopylae

It took less than 200 Christians shifting their Votes from Labour to SNP to turn a Labour Triumph into a CRUSHING SNP Victory

This by-election was eminently winnable by the Comrades


Didn't they deserve to lose it

Things have not been helped by the deterioration of the Economy and the increased taxation on Petrol & Booze (the consolation of the working & non-working man and increasingly of young ladies in the streets of our Cities)



How many Christians in Glasgow abandoned Labour to vote Scotch Nationalist, because they are fed up with this Godless Regime's relentlessly anti-Christian policies

eg the UN-necessary Criminalization & Abolition of Roman Catholic Adoption Agencies

* OK by Opus Dei member Mrs Derek Gadd [Ruth Kelly], but hardly a vote-winner amongst the Catholics of Glasgow

eg the attacks on Church Schools by Mr Yvette Cooper - in a previous incarnation, a Supporter & Apologist for Gordon's disastrous policies that have brought him and his wife into the Cabinet while bringing the British Economy to its knees


there are plenty of Christians in Marginal Labour Seats - the Comrades will trample over their sensitivities at their peril

I remain your obedient servant etc