Expenses, excuses and Labour delusions
Whether Gordon Brown stays or goes, New Labour’s political crisis goes far deeper than him.
You might expect that everybody would now know the extent of the New Labour government’s problems. Yet the remarkable thing is that many people, on all sides of the debate about Gordon Brown and Labour, are still underestimating the depth of the crisis.
If last week’s local government election results, in which Labour lost its only four remaining county councils in England, were not bad enough, then the Euro-election results announced on Sunday surely were. New Labour polled just 15 per cent of the votes cast, finishing third overall behind the non-entities of the UK Independence Party. Labour finished fourth or even fifth in parts of England.
Given that the overall turnout was only around 35 per cent of the total electorate, this means that a fraction over five per cent of all UK voters chose to go out and support the party of government. These unprecedented dire results, as others have noted, make even Michael Foot’s Labour Party (humiliated with 27.6 per cent in the 1983 General Election) look okay by comparison.
And if all those election defeats and the accompanying flurry of ministerial resignations did not open eyes to the truth about New Labour, there was the moment between the two sets of results when Brown escaped to France to play the world statesman on the anniversary of D-Day - only to find himself being booed by some of the armed forces veterans and their supporters.
After all that it might appear that everybody, with the possible exception of the man himself, has finally realised that Brown cannot win a General Election now. If he survives as party leader - which he may well do given that his opponents are generally even bigger political cowards than he is - it will only be because Labour MPs know that deposing Brown now will inevitably mean an immediate General Election in which they face being wiped off the map.
And yet for all that, few seem able to recognise or accept the real state of affairs facing New Labour today. Delusions and myths are being peddled on both sides of the Labour debate, with Brown loyalists and critics apparently equally keen to fool themselves that things are not so bad, even if they cannot fool anybody else.
So New Labour ministers try to claim that their electoral meltdown is a reaction to the scandal over MPs’ expenses, with the government rather unfairly getting the blame. The line is that people are so ‘angry’ about this issue they cannot see sense at the moment. The implication is that if we can only wait for the voters to stop this childish tantrum and calm down, they will be able to see that Brown is doing a marvellous job and all will be well in time for the General Election.
No, it’s not just the expenses scandal, say the prime minister’s Labour critics - it’s all about Brown. Just as many Labour MPs and their media supporters hailed Brown as the answer to all the party’s prayers, now they claim he is the cause of its malaise. Thus they suggest, as Cabinet minister James Purnell did in his resignation letter, that if only Brown himself would stand aside, the party’s ‘shared values’ would stand a chance of success at an election.
Others on the rump of the Labour left suggest it is not the individual leader that is to blame, but his specific policies; if only the government would relent on the part-privatisation of the Post Office (which it may well do in its desperation), all could yet be turned around. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the past week’s electoral rout could be a good thing, if it brings the party leaders to their senses on policy!
All of this delusional and patronising blather about expenses, emotional voters, politicians’ personalities and even about the odd policy misses the point. New Labour’s fortunes and authority were in steep decline long before anybody was talking about expense claims, or before Brown deposed Tony Blair as leader. For instance, Labour may just have been beaten by the Tories in Wales for the first time since 1918; but the writing was on the wall in the party’s Welsh heartlands when it lost its safest Commons seat, Blaenau Gwent, to an independent back in 2005.
The truth is that the Labour Party, as a political movement with real roots in society, has been dead for 25 years. What we are witnessing today is the fading of its ghostly shadow. The Labour Party was set up to represent the interests of the trade union movement. The ‘winter of discontent’ at the end of the Seventies and Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in the Eighties crushed that party and movement.
article continues after advertisement
Blair and Brown were able to take over and establish New Labour, a PR campaign that stood for nothing, because the party was already an empty shell. They managed to take advantage of the pathetic state of the opposition to win three elections. But New Labour’s paper-thin image and authority was already exhausted. Blair’s departure removed the glittery curtain that concealed the empty hole where the Labour Party was supposed to be. As spiked argued while many others were hailing Brown as Labour’s messiah, the party was already well and truly over.
Now we are witnessing the organisational and electoral consequences of the long death of the Labour Party. It has no core vote left to rely upon, no safe seats left to hide in. Above all, it has no political or ideological reason to exist. In his supposedly big speech to Labour activists last week, almost all that Brown seemed able to offer in the way of justification for his government were letters stating that its policies had helped to teach one woman to read and to identify another’s cancer. When it came to principles and values, he said that his government’s job was to encourage the rest of us to treat each other fairly, as if they were teachers - or church ministers - lecturing 10-year-olds. When Brown concluded that ‘this is what I stand for’, it rather gave the game away that all he stands for is Gordon Brown being PM.
Nor do Brown’s Labour critics stand for anything more substantial in political terms. There are no ‘Brownite’ or ‘Blairite’ wings fighting for alternative principles, as the left and right did in past Labour governments. Why would arch Blair-supporter Peter Mandelson be Brown’s protector-in-chief? There are only personal cliques and individuals squabbling over their own survival.
Parties tend to get the leaders they deserve. The fact that Brown has the attractive appearance of a cadaver these days seems entirely appropriate. The Labour Party is a mouldering corpse, and modern science has no miracle that can bring it back to life - even if those ungrateful Labour MPs threw out Brown, repaid every penny of their expenses, imprisoned a few bankers and made the Post Office give out free stamps.
And it’s not just New Labour. Despite all the hype about ‘revolutions’, there is a widespread tendency to underestimate the crisis facing the entire political system. Cameron’s Conservative Party is also an empty vessel. That is why the Conservatives have failed fully to cash in on Brown’s collapse.
Politics in the UK has become an increasingly arbitrary and unstable affair, contested by electoral machines that represent little outside themselves and have no real roots or solid support in wider society. Thus there have been wild swings in party fortunes over recent decades - with Labour wiped out in the Eighties, then the Tories wiped out from the late Nineties, and now New Labour swept away - without parallel political upheavals. This makes it more difficult to predict future results with certainty; almost any outcome seems possible at the next election - with the one exception of a Labour victory.
However, after another set of elections in which it is far easier to see who has lost than who might have won, one thing is for certain: we will need some proper political alternatives if the crisis of the old is to result in something more than a two-fingers-to-the-establishment vote for cranks. Those alternatives are unlikely to come from the remains of the left, which seems determined to waste its last breath trying to revive the corpse of Labourism. Others who consider ourselves on the left, but not of it, might see it as no bad thing that the dead hand of Labourism, which weighed down the cause of progress in Britain for so long, should finally be revealed as a withered claw. If only those delusions could die with it, perhaps we could start a debate about what comes next.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.