Next week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown will address what arguably is his last Labour Party conference as leader. Despite widespread speculation that he may not survive the conference, the odds are that he would hang on as a lame-duck leader until the general election in June next. It will be a difficult conference not just for Mr. Brown but for the Labour Party itself as it struggles to restore some semblance of unity and sense of direction in the run-up to the election.
Judging from successive opinion polls and the party’s own internal polling, a Labour victory is ruled out. Slowly, but surely, the country is headed for a Tory rule with David Cameron being already treated in Whitehall as the Prime Minister-in-waiting. The issue is no longer whether Labour would lose but what would be the scale of its defeat.
Headlines in even pro-Labour media (Guardian, Independent, New Statesman) are increasingly tending towards the “Goodbye Gordon, Hello David” variety; and with weekend supplements starting to focus on Samantha Cameron (contrasting the posh “SamCam” with the previous First Ladies), it is not difficult to sense which way the wind is blowing.
At a more serious level, however, Labour itself appears to have given up the fight with the normally bullish party leaders describing themselves as the “underdog.” Efforts are now focussed on limiting the damage rather than averting a defeat, prompting criticism that the party has thrown in the towel even before the fight has begun.
Until a few months ago, many -- within and outside the party -- believed that if Mr. Brown was replaced by a more charismatic leader, it still had an outside chance of trumping the Tories and, hence, the failed “coup” attempt back in summer. But since then, the party has slipped further in the polls and all bets are now off on a Labour recovery -- with or without Mr. Brown. The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the party is in such dire straits that nobody can save it and tinkering with the leadership at this stage will be like re-arranging the deckchairs on a rapidly sinking ship.
Some are still arguing for a leadership change but not on grounds that a new leader would win them the election. Rather, they are hoping that under a more “dynamic” leader, the party may be able to avoid a wholesale slaughter but there seems to be little enthusiasm among wannabe leaders to take the plunge at this juncture for the simple reason that none of them wants to go down in history as the person who led Labour to an electoral disaster. The general sense, therefore, is that Mr. Brown will survive for now by sheer default with the power struggle resuming after the election. The behind-the-scenes jostling for positioning we are seeing now is a rehearsal for the post-election leadership challenge if Mr. Brown does not step down voluntarily.
But after Brown, who? It is an issue that will dominate the debate in the party over the coming months. One leading Labour-affiliated trade union leader (as a major source of Labour funding, trade unions will have a big say in who should replace Mr. Brown) said he was not inspired by any of the contenders. “Who do I wake up each morning excited by? Nobody,” said Paul Kenny, general secretary of GMB, one of Britain’s biggest unions. The problem is not that there is a dearth of candidates or even good candidates. In fact, there are too many including Foreign Secretary David Miliband, his brother Ed Miliband, Energy Secretary; Home Secretary Alan Johnson; Justice Secretary Jack Straw; the party’s Deputy Leader Harriet Harman; and the influential Left-wing backbencher, Jon Cruddas -- to name just a few. What is more, all are substantial figures in their own right.
But unlike Tony Blair and Mr. Brown, none of them is sufficiently big enough to be seen as an obvious choice. There is no towering figure who will be acceptable to all factions; someone whose sheer weight will make him “`unchallengeable,” so to speak.
Even in its heyday, Labour was never really as tightly knit an organisation as it pretended to be (there were factions even then and tensions went deeper than the more public Blair-Brown rift) but power kept it together. After more than a decade in the Opposition, the fear of losing power again served as an effective glue. But now that the power is ebbing away, the glue is off and factionalism is out in the open. And though personal ambitions have a lot to do with the current turmoil, it is not all about personalities. They are part of a broader struggle for the soul of the party and at stake is the very future of the New Labour project which looks clearly exhausted after 11 years in power.
The Left, especially, believes that it is time to bury the Blair-Brown modernisation project and find a new direction for the party. New Labour, it is argued, was conceived with the sole purpose of making the Labour brand electable again after 18 years in political wilderness by spreading its appeal across ideological and class divisions through the simple trick of appearing all things to all people. The Third Way politics which inspired New Labour was simply an exercise in “political marketing” and ideologically as phoney as is Mr. Cameron’s “compassionate Conservatism.” If Mr. Cameron is seen as “heir to Blair,” the brand of Conservatism he is trying to market to win the election is “New Labour, Mark II.”
In a sense, history is repeating itself with the roles reversed. In 1997, it was the exhausted and discredited Tories who were on the ropes against a rejuvenated Labour under a young and charismatic leader. Now it is Labour that is all over the place against a young charismatic Tory leader. And just as the Labour grass roots then went into a sulk over what the “modernisers” were doing to the party, today the Tory grass roots are sulking over what their modernisers are doing to the party in pursuit of power.
But coming back to Labour, it is revenge time for the Old Labour faction — the so-called Labour “Left.” After being marginalised for 11 years, they have struck back and want to “reclaim” the party, triggering a low-intensity civil war between those who, as The Economist put it, are “keen to bury the Blairite modernisation project, condemning it as apostasy, and [those] arguing that, on the contrary, it was the betrayal of Blairism that caused the debacle.”
In a withering attack recently, Mr. Cruddas, who is leading the charge on behalf of the Left, said the party was facing its most serious crisis in 30 years and deserved a “catastrophic” defeat for abandoning its original principles. Tearing the New Labour project limb from limb, as it were, he reminded its architects of what they had done to the party: “We have lost many millions of voters since 1997. We have lost hundreds of thousands of members. We have become reviled by younger generations that view us as the party of the Establishment, war and insecurity. Our orthodoxy has defeated our radicalism. We speak a desiccated language of targets; our story, our essential ethic, has been lost on the altar of the focus group. We have retreated into what is essentially a Hobbesian utilitarianism, which considers self-interest as the only guiding principle.”
It was the most significant Left intervention on the state of the party and has since been followed by a concerted attack on New Labour policies from trade unions. Once contemptuously dismissed by Mr. Blair as a spent force and obstacle to progress and modernisation, trade unions are sensing blood as the New Labour project unravels and have intensified pressure on the government to roll back what they regard as its pro-rich and anti-poor policies. More specifically, they want an end to the creeping privatisation of public services, higher taxes on the rich as a means of redistributing resources and an assurance that the proposed cuts in public spending would not lead to job losses. They have threatened to field their own candidates against Labour with one senior trade union leader saying that given what they regard as the party’s “betrayal” of its core support base, “we can’t just sit back and say ‘Vote Labour’.”
In all likelihood, the threat will not materialise; and even if it does, it is unlikely to have much of an impact but the row indicates how febrile the mood is. Not surprisingly, the upcoming party conference in Brighton -- dubbed Mr Brown’s “last hurrah” -- is being likened to a “wake” for New Labour.