Friday, June 05, 2009

How best to play a weak hand

What a bloody mess. There seems extremely little chance of Labour winning the next election; even holding the Tories to a hung parliament looks unlikely. That said, the aim should still be to maximise the number of votes and seats that Labour can win.

Here are some thoughts on what to do next:

(1) Labour’s unpopularity is not all Brown’s fault.
His political clumsiness, his difficulty in changing the terms of debate and many aspects of his record are liabilities. Junking Brown would help with that, but won’t change the fact that a lot of people are sick of this government for a range of other reasons, and have been for some time.

(2) A turn in the economy won’t help.
As I argued yesterday, there isn’t enough time for unemployment to come down before the next election. What’s more, Brown’s strength has been in moments of urgent financial crisis; all we’re faced with now is the grim, gloomy slog of job losses, bankruptcies and repossessions.

(3) The reshuffle won’t help.
Unless he wants to bring in Baroness Lumley as Secretary of State for Gurkhas and Loveliness, it won’t have much political benefit. Reshuffles never do – unless, of course, they lead to major changes in the direction of government. But that could in theory happen without a bunch of new faces; and, in practice, Brown doesn’t give the impression that he’s much of a direction-changer.

(4) Something might turn up – but for whom?
Events, dear boy, events… The utterly unforeseen could radically change the political picture. But why should we expect such a change to benefit Labour rather than the Tories? Other things being equal, you’d expect a fifty-fifty chance here. But other things aren’t equal: Cameron is far nimbler than Brown at responding to events, and in any case the party that’s already more popular will tend to have its reactions viewed more favourably than the party already less liked.

(5) A new leader could well help, but probably not for long.
We may scorn the media for not being policy wonks, but personalities do matter. A reasonably personable replacement with half a dozen decent policy ideas (everyone seems to be thinking Alan Johnson) would likely provide a boost. However, given the many reasons voters have acquired for resenting this government over the years, such a boost might not last more than a few months – that, at least, is what the events of autumn 2007 suggest.

(6) People don’t grasp the true value of a caretaker leader.
All the commentary I’ve seen about Johnson (presumably) as caretaker has focused on how he could steady nerves and steer the party through to the election, probably losing but not as badly as Brown would. That may be true, but reducing the scale of defeat is not the main reason to want such a person: his true value will come after defeat.

Party leadership contests just after election defeat tend to produce bad results: William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, for instance. Far better to give it a while – maybe a year – and see how things go. A new Tory government would start with a fair amount of goodwill or at least benefit of the doubt, and nobody will be much interested in what the opposition does internally. Labour, post-defeat, would gain from spending some time mulling over what lessons to learn and seeing what the Tories’ strengths and weaknesses turn out to be in power.

I can’t conceive that Brown would want to stay on post-defeat – and in any case, he’d be too discredited to steady the ship. With his union background and broadly modernising (but not factionally Blairite) position, Johnson could be a good post-defeat caretaker, allowing time to rethink and regroup, avoiding civil war, scoring some hits on the Tories here and there, and letting potential successors show what they can do (as Michael Howard did for Cameron and Osborne).

But a post-defeat contest would be fought to win by various younger candidates of left and right (which could get nasty) – so for Johnson to be post-election caretaker, he’d almost certainly need to become leader beforehand.

(7) Tax rises and spending cuts are on the way.
Given the spiralling budget deficit, there is surely pain to come. Whoever is in power after the election is likely to become very unpopular. Assuming that the Tories win, Labour will need to be in reasonable shape to take advantage of this fact.

(8) Forcing Brown out will look bad.
The best replacement scenario would involve him leaving voluntarily, but clearly he will only go under fierce pressure. This will make the party look divided.

(9) Keeping Brown on will look bad.
Because he looks bad. And in any case, it’s widely known that there is a lot of internal party opposition to him. The choice may be between divisions that lead to a de facto overthrow and divisions that keep bubbling away, unresolved.

(10) A leadership election now could look bad.
A properly contest might expose ideological rifts and factional rivalries in the party, and could also give the impression that Labour is more interested in its own affairs than in the needs of the country. It would take much longer than an uncontested succession.

(11) Another ‘unelected’ PM could look bad.
An uncontested Johnson succession might feed into the view that Labour tries to avoid elections wherever possible, and it would make it easier to argue that he has no mandate and must call an immediate election.

(12) But there will be calls for an election ‘now’ every day, regardless.
If Brown stays, if Johnson smoothly replaces him, if X beats Y in a contest – nothing will still the demands for a snap election. And while these demands are a problem, they shouldn’t be seen as overwhelming all other factors.

(13) The post-expenses turmoil has to be soothed, a bit.
At the moment, voters are in little mood for politics beyond expressing disgust at MPs’ conduct. This is getting in the way of everything; many urge a snap election to purge the system, but such an election would be single-issue in a way that made it almost apolitical. Things need to come off the boil.

What Brown should have said when Cameron asked why a snap election would mean chaos is that the current intense fury would prevent proper debate of other – vitally important – issues; that anyone winning an election now would have little mandate beyond ‘clean things up’; that the parties do need a bit of time to put their houses in order before putting candidates up for election.

(14) There are two good grounds for not having an election yet.
Perhaps the best way for a new leader to resist demands for an early election would be to say that MPs have been elected to do a job of work; that across the board they haven’t done as well as they should have; that the new leader wants a chance to put things right and reform parliament, rather than just walking away when the headlines get tough; and that there will indeed be an election not too far away.

The second reason to hold off is that there’s still important work to be done dealing with the recession.

(15) But a new leader probably shouldn’t leave it too long.
The ‘call an election ASAP’ dynamic, fed by the expenses row and by any change of leader, points in the same direction as the fact that a new leader’s novelty value won’t last. I’d guess three months might be about right.

Summing up
I think Brown has to go – he’s far from the whole problem, but he’s preventing even a partial solution – and to be replaced probably with Johnson, as smoothly as possible, pretty soon. If Brown could hang on into the autumn without causing further party convulsions or further hardening the anti-Labour vote, I’d support that. But I don’t see it. Johnson needs to go hell-for-leather on sorting out parliament, and perhaps also say that he intends to call an election later this year – and that he won’t be saying another word about election timing until he goes to see the Queen. Health, education etc. mustn’t be ignored, but the focus will have to be on the economy and on cleaning up parliament. Then the election could be called perhaps just after the party conferences or the pre-Budget report.

The Tories would still almost certainly win. I’m recommending a path strewn with landmines, but such is life when you’re in the middle of a minefield.

One final thought
Neither the above, nor most of the commentary elsewhere, has much to say about the importance of governing the country. Brown is not just Labour leader, he’s also Prime Minister, and some strange people may think that the latter job is more important. Will another change of PM get in the way of the business of governing (to a greater extent than the current seething mass of frustration and despair)? Is Alan Johnson really cut out to be PM, even if only briefly? And if Labour really is doomed to defeat, why throw away six months or so of power to what (some of us still firmly believe) is a far inferior party?

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