Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Labour’s predicament

More questions than answers, I’m afraid…

Is Brown really the problem?
Labour’s underlying unpopularity pre-dates Brown’s accession to Number 10. The Iraq war more or less marked the point at which the Government stopped being able to shrug off mistakes and failures and attacks and sheer bad luck. Blair’s political skills only grew in his last couple of years, but by then he’d lost the ability to reap popularity from the use of those skills; by contrast, the Tories finally got themselves a leader who had the skills needed to draw support away from Labour.

For a brief while, Brown pulled Labour out of the hole, but then the ground next to the hole gave way and the result is now an even bigger hole. Thanks to his own cock-ups and singular lack of presentational talent, he’s now a significant part of the problem.

Can Brown change?
This is really three questions rolled into one, and two of them are beside the point. (a) Can Brown change who he is? Of course not. (b) Can he change the way he acts as PM? Probably, but only to a degree. The question that matters electorally, though, is: (c) Can he change the way he is perceived? And the answer is surely: not much, not any more. It would take a national crisis dwarfing the upsets of last summer – and for him to handle it very well – for that sort of shift to happen. Doesn’t seem likely. So…

Should Labour get rid of Brown?
There has been a torrent of commentary this month about whether he should go; a majority of what I’ve read thinks either yes, ASAP, or probably, later in the year. But a surprising proportion of these columns and blog posts don’t suggest who should replace him, nor do they have all that much to say about what a new Labour leader should do to regain popularity.

I suspect that things won’t really get any worse for Labour under Brown. But there may not be much scope for them getting better, either. If his personal image is now irreversibly tainted then whatever he does won’t count for much. I’m not sure how big an if that is, but it’s been getting smaller with every month that’s passed since October.

But getting rid of him could be very costly. A full frontal challenge, with or without a candidate starting at its head, would leave blood all over the floor; it also seems unlikely, now that Brown’s survived this weekend with the Cabinet rallying round him. And another new PM mid-term? Wouldn’t it make the Parliamentary party look ridiculous to abandon the man they overwhelmingly backed just last year?

Why and how would he go?
What would be the reason given for turning on Brown? Just his poor poll ratings and lack of charisma? That might work for the Lib Dems (though I’m not sure it does), but for a governing party to try that would be met with contempt.

Martin Kettle asks: “who is going to be Labour's Geoffrey Howe?” But Howe’s attack on Thatcher, which brought about her downfall, was not about personality or popularity; it was about serious policy differences on Europe and how she managed her Government. A challenger would need a substantive, ‘legitimate’ critique of that sort.

If Brown were to stand down himself, presumably after discreet yet ‘full and frank’ discussions with his Cabinet and former backbench supporters, that would make things smoother. It also seems likelier – although maybe not by that much.

Either way, the pressures for a general election within a few months would be immense, so the new leader might have little time to make an impression. That could be either a handicap or an opportunity to make virtue of necessity and go for an all-guns-blazing ‘big push’.

But it’s hard to do a cost-benefit analysis when you only know what half of the ‘replace Brown’ plan involves.

Who would take over?
There’s talk of Alan Johnson or Jack Straw as a ‘caretaker’, to lead the party to as limited a defeat as possible, whereupon the younger generation could get to work on rising from the ashes. That won’t work. An opposition party can get away with putting in a caretaker leader if all that’s expected of it is to improve a bit on its previous poor showing – as with Michael Howard. But for a Government to do that would be rightly seen as running up the white flag.

To stick with a perceived loser can be understood as being due to inertia and loyalty, and with Brown you get the sense that he’d willingly fight the Tories to his dying breath. But to go to all the trouble of replacing him with someone who’s seen, even before the start of his candidacy, as someone intended to steady nerves and lose gracefully… what would be the point? What value a safe pair of hands if the ball has already been dropped? The defeat might be more graceful but it’d be no less big.

So there’s the younger generation of ‘bright young things’. If one of them thinks they can turn things around for Labour, then best of luck to them. Maybe one of them could (David Miliband seems by far the most credible). But if they think they can’t, then why would they want to captain the post-iceberg Titanic?

But then what?
And the bigger question remains: what would any new leader do to deal with the underlying dislike of this government that’s been growing since 2003? A personable face is important but no substitute for a political-governmental strategy.

How can Labour win?
This is perhaps the fundamental question that all the others lead up to. But it’s actually the wrong question, for two reasons. First of all, it’s mesmerising. Labour supporters look at the Tory poll leads, at the mass graves of their local Labour councillors, at last week’s byelection swing and at Mayor Johnson, and try to imagine what might possibly be able to overcome all of this. They stand, like deer in the headlights, paralysed beyond muttering words like ‘change’ and ‘listen’. Some trot out a prefabricated list of their own pet policies, but I’m not sure they really think they have a workable plan for scaling the mountain. I know my own list isn’t one.

So forget about trying to do something called ‘winning’ – the concept is just too daunting. This brings me to the second reason: there isn’t a qualitative difference between ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ a general election. There are degrees. Show me any opposition leader or any Prime Minister who wouldn’t prefer to have another dozen MPs. The phrase ‘fight for every vote in every seat’ is a tedious mantra, but that’s what needs to be done. Not trying to ‘win’, but trying to maximise Labour’s vote and get as many seats as possible. If that still leaves the party in opposition, so be it; at least no effort will have been spared. But trying to do something that seems impossible means that people’s hearts won’t be in it and that the strategy will be feeble and clumsy.

What chance is there?
I don’t know whether Labour can manage to get a majority in (presumably) 2010. Maybe not: it looks less likely than it did even two months ago. But the party is much less divided than the Tories in the mid-1990s, and it hasn’t been as far behind nor for as long. So opinion is not as firmly settled as it was in 1995 – there’s more scope for a comeback, at least of sorts. Perhaps there could be enough innovation to make people really think again about Labour. The economic slowdown may be briefer and milder than feared. The Tories will make mistakes, some of which may be serious; certainly, the constructive ambiguity in many of their policies will come under more critical attention.

The only way to know how much ground can be recovered is to go for it.

Finally, a question that makes all the above look petty. It’s one for Brown, for the ministers talked about as successors, for the anxious backbenchers: imagine, just hypothetically, that you wake up tomorrow morning to find that you have two years in government ahead of you.

What do you want to achieve?

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