Leaders not into the futureJun 22nd, 2007 | By Matthew Brown | Category: Articles, Democratic Socialist
Does Labour’s change of leadership reflect anything more politically profound than a change of personnel? HAZEL HAED asseses the evidence.
Gordon Brown’s long and painful wait to assume the top spot in British politics is now coming to an end. After enduring Tony Blair’s farcically long goodbye, Brown was shorn of the need actually to contest the leadership of the party and will assume the prime minister’s role in July. As he takes on the premiership so the Blair-Brown soap opera, which has consumed column inches like no other, will slip from centre stage. Yet, despite all the retrospectives on Blair, and the future-gazing that has accompanied Brown’s elevation, how much will really change in the party, and how far will the party’s prospects change in the rest of the country?
It is one of the most obvious, and ironic, features of the rather unhinged rivalry between Brown and Blair that, politically speaking, there was never much between them. The level of heat generated by their relationship, particularly before each party conference, was always out of kilter with what was at stake politically. Of course, those close to the action – the respective camps of MPs, advisors and party officials – did have a personal stake in Blair’s departure: Brownites were (perhaps, rightly) cheesed off at Blair’s tenacious hold on office; while Blairites felt (again, with some justification) that Brown was disloyal at times, disappearing out of sight when the going got tough over Iraq, party funding, tuition fees, the NHS, and the like.
Yet, from a more distanced political perspective, all this seemed somewhat irrelevant. On all the central pillars of new Labour’s politics, and on virtually all the most contentious issues, Brown and Blair essentially agreed – whether it was tuition fees, Iraq, marketisation of the NHS, public spending in the early years, academy schools, or many of new Labour’s other flagship policies.
So, in many important ways the change of leadership will make almost no difference to the big picture and the central political position of the Labour Party in government will remain unchanged.
However, as Blair’s unpopularity has risen, Brownites have increasingly tried to suggest their man will signal change and have attempted to establish distance between the PM-elect and his predecessor. There have been vague hints of big, symbolic policy initiatives early in a Brown premiership. There’s talk of new foreign policy measures (such as more education aid to developing countries, and more activity around renewing international agreements on climate change) to shift the international image of Labour away from Iraq and the USA. And there are claims that Brown will use constitutional changes to usher in a new, less-controlling, more trustworthy, more transparent style of government.
But even these limited measures may well be tempered by the realities of office. While some on the left hope for big symbolic policies to reassure Labour’s lost voters, the threat from David Cameron will pull Brown equally strongly in the other direction. Reassuring middle England will remain at the heart of his politics, much more central to it than appeals to the heart of Labour’s support. Indeed, with a rejuvenated opposition and entrenched cynicism about Labour, Brown has a much steeper hill to climb than Blair did ten years ago. As a consequence, and because of the nature of the electoral contest, a significant shift to the left is highly unlikely, particularly as the loss of some Scottish seats at the next election is on the cards.
Despite sounding tough on foreign policy – ‘I’ll be frank with our US allies’ – there are no signs that Brown is likely to make any radical shifts on Iraq or the alliance with the United States. Brown’s style of government is also unlikely to be that much different to Blair’s – he has form, after all, having been accused of obsessively controlling other government colleagues. Signs of disgruntlement from disenfranchised Blairites are likely to get a swift reaction. The lessons of John Major’s government, undermined by continuous rearguard actions from die-hard Thatcherites, may be informative here.
Brown may also face much more difficult times with the economy. In some ways he has been clever, and in some ways lucky, over the past ten years, but if there is one certainty in economics it is that the good times will not last for ever. Underlying weaknesses in the UK economy, and straws in the wind from the United States, may conspire against Brown’s premiership.
For the party, the absence of a credible challenger to Brown, and the decline in support for a suicidal left-wing campaign, brings the deputy leadership battle to the forefront. Although the number of candidates has grown, in some senses this contest is a complete irrelevance – after all, any deputy is unlikely to shift Brown’s political orientation. Yet, in the absence of a proper leadership contest, the deputy debate has become a kind of proxy for discussions about the party’s future direction.
Of the six candidates – Peter Hain, Hilary Benn, John Cruddas, Alan Johnston, Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears – there are two who (with a fair wind behind them) could be said to have some left-ish credentials: Hain and Cruddas. Indeed, these two illustrate an interesting divide between an ‘internal’, party-oriented focus and an ‘outward’, electoral focus.
Hain has written and spoken in the past of his adherence to libertarian socialism. His record in government, one would have to say, has been rather less notable. And his statements as an official candidate have focussed mostly on factors external to the party. Indeed, he’s made a rather surprising claim that the party is ‘fundamentally ideologically united’ so there’s no need for a debate on aims and values. The internal debates, he claims, were settled in the 1990s.
Hain acknowledges the need to ‘reconnect’ with the wider electoral progressive coalition built by Blair and Brown, and, more interestingly, argues that Labour needs to narrow the gap between rich and poor, an aim Blair explicitly rejected. Overall, however, his emphasis has been on what the party can do to reach the ‘lost’ progressive voters and win a fourth term, rather than on any sense that there is something wrong within the party itself.
Cruddas stands in sharp contrast to this. He has written about the need to renew the party, in a pamphlet with John Harris [see DS issue…??], and focusses on the notion that there is a crisis within the party itself. Indeed, Cruddas has called for an overhaul of the policy-making process to reconnect with members by giving them a voice in policy formation. He has talked of revitalising the National Policy Forum, for example, and making changes to conference. He has also argued for a change in Labour’s campaigning strategy – that it needs to get back to knocking on doors and to put the active participation of members back at the forefront. He argues for changes to party funding, for campaigns on local issues, and for changes to the role of councils. Members have left the Labour Party, Cruddas claims, not because of policy but because they feel excluded from influence.
Cruddas is alone among the candidates in saying that he does not want to be deputy PM (nor to have all the trappings of office that go with it). He emphasises that the election is a party one and the focus of the deputy should be on the party. This is rather in contrast to Hain, Johnston and the others, who are all aiming to be Brown’s deputy in government. Cruddas has also courted left-wing support by calling for a halt to the marketisation of the NHS and by criticising academy schools.
Blears is the candidate closest to the party leadership, having been one of new Labour‘s cheerleaders-in-chief for some time. She too seems to recognise that something is rotten in the Labour heartland. However, in place of Cruddas’ somewhat more solid view of reform, Blears offers a less than clear vision of a party geared around more and more activity, enthusiasm, action committees, social events, networks, and so on. If such ideas are a recognition of the need for the party to reconnect with wider society, then that much is fine. But if it amounts to an even more vague, remote, impenetrable relationship between members, or ‘supporters’, and policy, then it does nothing to put the party back on the democratic road. A party in Blears’ image – bright eyed and relentlessly grinning, as yet another policy disaster unfolds – is not a comforting thought.
Of the others, Harriet Harman’s main selling point is that she is a woman, while Alan Johnston plays on his working class and trade union background to garner union and constituency support. Johnston also clashed with Blears in calling for councils to be allowed to build council houses again. However, the centre of his case is that he will be a deputy leader who continues the government’s ‘pragmatic reasonableness’, that he will ‘carry out the leader’s wishes’ in order to secure a fourth term – hardly a candidate to set the pulse racing.
Somewhere between Blears and Johnston comes Hilary Benn who, despite party and popular support, only just squeezed onto the ballot. A person who is capable of engaging in genuine debate with members, Benn nevertheless seems to follow Blair’s and Cameron’s tactic of sounding pleasant while avoiding any concrete commitments at all. However, he has been more forthright on foreign policy, signalling a clear distance between himself and the Bush administration on the war on terror and gaining widespread praise for his work on international development.
The wider picture
Although none of the candidates will have any serious impact on the direction of Brown’s government, the deputy contest has at least allowed members to air some views on how the party’s problems might be addressed, and what future direction it might take. Of course, Brownites say the government’s current unpopularity, and the party’s loss of members, is down to Tony Blair, as do, interestingly, some of the hard left. But even characters like Blears, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, and their ilk, have been calling for some time for the party to renew itself while in government. The problem is that almost no-one, including most of the deputy leadership candidates, comes up with any coherent strategy for what to do about it.
On the left of the party, the main political development in recent years has been the rise of Compass which has helped to revitalise debate within what remains of the party. As well as effective media campaigns, such as those it ran around the education bill last year, Compass has staged some real discussions with very broad-based participation. However, much of its high-level support, and some of the impetus behind it, has come from Brownites, and there is little doubt it has been energised by the widespread dislike of Blair. It is more than likely, then, that the Compass coalition will be sorely tested by the actual experience of a Brown government.
The ILP, by contrast, has long taken the view that radical short-term advances for democratic socialism are unlikely, and that a much longer-term strategy is called for to develop and gain support for democratic socialist ideas. In this respect, while, of course, a Labour government’s actions have some effect, the challenge for socialists is both deeper and more enduring than politically-constrained leadership campaigns.
In today’s world the sheer lack of engagement in party political matters means that many of the traditional routes the left once used to connect with people now no longer exist. The emphasis put on rebuilding some of the old structures, by the likes of John Cruddas, therefore, is welcome. But it may take a wider revitalisation of politics before leadership debates reflect anything more politically profound than a change of personnel.