Saturday, May 24, 2008

What Happens Next?

The newspapers predictably are full of articles saying in effect that "Brown must go". They would wouldn't they?

Ever since 1990, when the Tories decapitated Margaret Thatcher in a thrilling putsch which had everything the press could want about it - the chilling speech in the Commons from Howe, the betrayals of the cabinet, the tears outside Downing Street - they've had a taste for leadership challenges.

From 1992 to 1997, the Tories were plagued by plots and rumours and phone-lines being laid, which the press gleefully stoked, and which built to such a point that Major couldn't stand it anymore and triggered a leadership contest himself in 1995. Fat good all this plotting did for the Tories when you look at the outcome of the '97 election. There was a brief period of stability during Hague's reign, but then it started over again. Between 1997 and today, the Tories have had four leaders not counting John Major. Has the constant chopping and changing done them good? In my opinion it delayed their rehabilitation. Leadership contests were displacement activity that enabled the party to avoid asking hard questions of itself. But the press loved the drama of it all.

Then the LibDems got into the leadership change thing. Charlie Kennedy was pushed, after a tragic press conference when he so clearly wanted to stay. Then the dagger was put into Ming. Earlier this year, it started to look like people were going for Clegg too, when rumours circulated that ballot papers voting for Huhne arrived after the election deadline had passed, and this supposedly made Clegg's election somehow invalid. But Clegg's been given a stay of execution, because attention has turned to Gordon Brown.

The press were rather disappointed with the smooth transfer of power from Blair to Brown. Blair could say that he'd been leader for 13 years and had won three elections. He could point out that he had pre-announced his departure in late 2004, before the general election, and therefore leaving was his own choice. He could point out that that he left with a standing ovation in Parliament ringing in his ears. And those in the party who wanted him to leave as punishment for Iraq could say that he did fall on his sword, if not quite Japanese-style, and that the party managed the punishment without the humiliation heaped on Thatcher. Labour soared in the polls as a result. The public wanted Blair to go, but they also liked the smooth succession. Unlike the press, they have no taste for excessive humiliation of leaders by their parties.

The latter point is very important. Are the public really clamouring for a leadership putsch? All the polls say that the public thinks all potential successors would be worse. People who say Brown should go say that he is useless at presentation. Well yes he is. But is not being liked by John Humphries a bigger reason to be sacked that commiting your country to war without discussing it with your cabinet first? Really? Then there are those who say that a putsch must happen as MPs are "desperate to save their jobs" and this is of utmost importance. Really? If anything is more likely to put the public off it is MPs thinking about their own jobs. There are two years to go before the next election. Plenty of time for MPs in danger of losing their seats to prepare and line up work for when they leave. Most will fall on their feet.

Then there is the issue of who would succeed. Blair didn't promote people, despite the huge amount of talent in the parliamentary party. He got attached to people and kept them - so John Reid did umpteen departments, Mandelson and Blunkett were brought back several times when they should have been left on the backbenches. The same old faces circulated. He didn't bother with the next generation. It was all about his own comfort. Kinnock by contrast had managed to give both Blair and Brown their chance when they were in their early thirties - by 1997 they had been in the shadow cabinet for nearly ten years. It was not till Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister that the next generation was given a chance. Most are in their late thirties or early forties, and have had less than a year in cabinet. These men and women, Blairites, Brownites and some who are simply Labour, need time to hone their skills. Why should we sacrifice their futures in the way the Tories selfishly sacrificed William Hague's?

People often ask why Brown was the sole candidate in 2007. It's because the people who wanted to stand (Clarke, Milburn) were people the membership wouldn't have voted for in a million years, and the potential nominees in parliament knew this. The membership wouldn't even give Alan Johnson and John Cruddas the deputy leadership, forget leader. At the same time, the people the membership did want, didn't want to stand, for a variety of reasons, some of which were personal. This is a point often overlooked by the commentariat. In order to become a leader it's not enough that the party wants them, they have to want the job too and allow their name to be put forward in the first place. We don't conscript leaders in the Labour party!

So what is going to happen? Gordon Brown will lead us into the next election and have his chance to face the electorate. We do not wish to copy the Tories prior to 1997 when they ploted and stabbed in a desperate and unsavory attempt to save their jobs.

Instead we are going to go into the election in the way the Spartans went into Thermopylae - knowing that we will certainly get killed but sacrificing ourselves anyway in order to do as much damage to our opponents. No point having any more attempts to "win over" the electorate with tax giveaways and interviews and re-launches - tried that, didn't work. It's got to the stage where no matter what we do or say, the public isn't listening. So we might as well spend the next two years in government laying a series of Poison Pills, in order to ham-string and hurt any incoming Tory government. The point of Thermopylae is that though the Persians took the pass, they incurred so much damage it laid the seeds for their future permanent defeat. And if we can do some purely Labour things too in the next two years, why not? In a funny way it is liberating to be in a situation where the public isn't listening. It means there are no constraints on us, because the outcome will be the same anyway. We might as well enjoy the next two years. Who knows, loosening up and being ourselves might even get us rehabilitated!

I would advise Gordon Brown to get some sleep and rest and take time to play with his babies. And not to bother touring the TV stations with re-launches. The public arn't listening and more importantly Gordon doesn't enjoy them. So why bother? Part of the liberating aspect of this situation is that the old rules can be chucked. Don't feel like speaking to Humphries and co? Then dont! Instead, let the newbies in the cabinet have a go. Indeed let them take turns at PMQs as well in a sort of two year audition for the succession.

Of course the press won't be able to wait two years for a succession story. I predict that they will either turn back to the LibDems to try to stoke a leadership challenge there. Or maybe have a look at the SNP and Greens. They haven't had a leadership change for some time, have they?


labourparty said...

They're not going to get Brown's head, but the Lib Dem leader is on a sticky wicket. Look at the GLA results, add in the locals, and then Crewe, and it's a leader in deep doggy do-do.

Henley will be the key to this one. It's a seat ripe for a Lib Dem triumph, in theory. Sink here my Tory-embracing yellow bird and you're in real trouble. The kind of trouble you can't hide.

Political Umpire said...

"commiting your country to war without discussing it with your cabinet first"

Is this seriously what Blair did? If so, why did only Robin Cook resign? (Clare Short's 'don't agree but want to keep my job' stance was beneath contempt).

I have been infuriated by the likes of Blunkett saying how many doubts they had at the time and how obsessed Blair was. It amounts to saying they had a madman in charge who was sending us to war for the wrong reasons. If so, one might have expected the rest of the cabinet to get rid of him sharpish. Instead they kept their positions, and made no public utterances which suggest they were in fact concerned as they now claim they were. Cabinet entails joint responsibility for cabinet decisions, so there is zero credit for anyone who now claims they didn't agree but stayed in the cabinet and kept quiet - in fact quite the reverse.

"It's got to the stage where no matter what we do or say, the public isn't listening."

Interesting opinion of "the public"!

snowflake5 said...

Political Umpire - Blair visited Bush in Texas in late 2002, and foolishly gave him an unconditional undertaking that he would back a US led war. He didn't even bargain and ask for anything in return. He should have certainly discussed it with cabinet first (cabinet would have imposed conditions) - but once he gave the undertaking we were committed.

Some people did resign like Robin Cook and John Denham. Others took a different stance - the whole reason Jack Straw persuaded Blair to put the war to a vote in Parliament was that he thought there was a good chance parliament would vote it down. A negative vote would have cancelled Blair's commitment. Though Labour in 2003 had a majority of 160, 135 Labour MPs rebelled (the largest rebellion in parliamentary history) - enough to overturn the vote. Unfortunately Tory MPs voted with the government (who needs majorities if your opposition is voting with you?) and the motion was carried. Once parliament had said yes, nothing could stop it.

Political Umpire said...

That being so, the conduct of the cabinet was a disgrace. This wasn't some piece of welfare reform or unwise public expenditure or sale of a few hospitals - this was committing the country to war, about the most serious decision any government can take.

IF the cabinet disagreed with the decision at the time, but stayed put (or tried and failed to stop it indirectly as you suggest Straw did) then it amounts to saying that they were quite prepared to sacrifice lives and billions of pounds for the sake of their own political careers (it's not as though any of them would have gone on the dole had they quit, so I don't see any excuse).

It is not the case that the Labour government, much less Parliament, was committed by anything Blair said to Bush. Had cabinet stood up to him then it would certainly have been stopped (and Blair's career probably finished). Considerably after the 2002 visit the Americans thought Britain had cold feet - hence Rumsfeld's comment that the British troops were 'workarounds' - fine if they were there, irrelevant if they were not.

The irony is that the recent events in Basra suggest that neither the Americans nor the Iraqis themselves have much store in Britain's commitment anymore. Britain never had the stomach for the bills and the blood to get involved in an open ended commitment like Iraq (neither did the Americans - look at the amount of fuss over the amount of casualties so far - which amount to an hour or so of Antietam if that.

"It's got to the stage where no matter what we do or say, the public isn't listening. So we might as well spend the next two years in government laying a series of Poison Pills, in order to ham-string and hurt any incoming Tory government. "

This is the problem with party politics. Labour's concern should not be damage the Tories at all costs and to hell with the public because they're 'not listening' anyway.

"The public" still pay the wages of the Labour machine and are the reason they are there in the first place. Labour's concern should be to govern in the best manner it judges in the interest of the public, not to spend its time consumed with party warfare. If a tax increase or decrease is what it judges best it should do so, not simply cut taxes or raise expenditure in an attempt to buy votes.

The problem is of course that for too many MPs and also their vast support staff politics is the only career they've had and will have. Staying in power and climbing the greasy pole (which can often clash) are the only goals they have. Actually serving the public is only a goal so long as it doesn't conflict with the other two. Which it evidently did in the case of Blair's supine cabinet over Iraq.

snowflake5 said...

Political Umpire - "It is not the case that the Labour government, much less Parliament, was committed by anything Blair said to Bush."

Exactly. That is exactly the reason why the whole thing was put to a vote in Parliament, as Parliament is sovereign. But Parliament voted in favour of the war. You simply can't get away from this point. Once parliament voted yes, we were committed.

Some Labour MPs votes yes because they trusted what their own leader was saying. People in parties do trust their leaders, you see this in business and in the military too. What was the conservative's excuse for not opposing (which is their duty as opposition)?

No matter how much you rail about Labour politics and the duty of Labour MPs (with MPs of other parties supposedly having no duty at all!), it comes down to the fact that most of the rebels were on the Labour side. And if it was "normal politics" i.e. the opposition opposing, the vote for war would have been lost by 245. At least the Labour rebels bothered to rebel. And Labour party members moved motions at conference rejecting the war. What did the conservatives do? they voted in favour with a few honorable exceptions like Ken Clarke.

This is why I despise people who claim they were against the war but are voting conservative. The conservatives made no protest against the war at all, they didn't participate in the marches against the war, - instead they spent their time in the commons taunting Blair about not being war-like enough! And even now they haven't apologised for their stance, though plenty of Labour people have. The conservatives want people to forget that they had a duty to vote no in parliament and simply didn't bother.

As to the tax policies etc - politics is war by another name. The conservatives handed us a crap inheritance when we took ovger in 97 - we were paying more in interest payments than on schools, there were beggars all over the streets and the whole infrastructure of the country was crumbling.

Labour have done a lot to fix britain - and we're entitled in our last few years to do something to protect our long-suffering core vote, especially as it is a racing certainty that the conservatives will do everthing they can to hurt them. In the depth of the 90's recession, Norman Lamont gloated that "if it's not hurting it's not working" and practically had an orgasm at the thought of Labour people suffering. It will happen again if the conservatives get into power - Lamont was Cameron's mentor.

Political Umpire said...

Snowflake you mistake my critisising the Labour Gvt for praising the Conservatives. I did no such thing.I have no party affiliation and don't vote on party lines.

Whatever the tories/lib dems etc did, does not excuse members of the Labour cabinet like Blunkett for not standing up to Blair given that they now seek to say they knew all along he was misguided - cabinet after all had access to all the intelligence etc which Robin Cook wasn't convinced by for one.

"Once parliament had said yes, nothing could stop it."

Disagree. War making is done by the executive. They shouldn't have put it to Parl in the first place, and should have returned to Parliament afterwards for another vote if they'd realised they were wrong.

"politics is war by another name." Now you know why I don't like pol parties! And poor behaviour by the Tories doesn't justify it on the part of Labour - 2 wrongs don't make a right.

snowflake5 said...

Political Umpire - think about what you are saying - that the cabinet should have ignored the vote in Parliament authorising war and done a putsch. This is incrdible stuff! In your mind, Iraq was so serious that it justified ignoring Parliament. But think of the precedent that sets!

Say a future government loses a vote in parliament and the cabinet just ignores it, citing precedent! You might as well abolish parliament.

Like it or not, we are a parliamentary democracy. Iraq was debated in parliament to a full house. The 135 Labour rebels made pasionate well-argued speechs. Some opposition MPs like Ken Clarke made very good speechs too. And then parliament voted.

You can argue about the result, but in a democracy you have to consider whether maybe the will of the MPs reflected that of their constituents. Those people who had elected those Tory MPs were actually in favour of war, most people on the right had signed up to war. So their MPs were doing what they wanted.

As for those who voted for Labour - Labour won the 2001 election with 41% of the vote and won the 2005 election with 36% of the vote - If we assume that the drop in vote indicated unhappiness about Iraq, we can surmise that 87% of the people who had voted Labour in 2001 agreed with the war. But only 67% of the Labour MPs voted for the war - so some were clearly going against their constituents views. It remains an uncomfortable truth that everyone would like to forget, that the voters favoured the war at the time. Blair after all got re-electedin 2005. And lots voted for Howard, who was also in favour of the war.

Where does this leave those of us who opposed Iraq? Perhaps feeling a little ill that so many Brits were in favour of war, perhaps feeling that the press has too much power to make people's minds (the entire Murdoch press was in favour - it got so I couldn't bear to read the Times). I'm not sure how we can improve the system, frankly.

But Parliament remains sovereign - and MPs vote guided by their constituents. The buck in democracies ultimately stops with the voter, though voters like to pretend otherwise and blame politicians for everything - and I'm looking at you here Political Umpire :-)

Political Umpire said...

Parliament would never have voted in favour if the cabinet had not supported Blair. War making is primarily the responsibility of the executive, which in turn is controlled by cabinet, so it is the members of cabinet who didn't do a Robin Cook (that is, everyone else) who shoulders the chief blame for getting us into Iraq imho. Those tories who voted in favour (and indeed the shadow cabinet headed by the failure IDS) don't get any credit either, but you have to say that the blame rests primarily on the executive of the day.

There wasn't a referendum on the issue, and yes Blair went on to win the next election, but that supports my view that rarely does foreign policy win or lose an election. Everyone thinks that Thatcher was re-elected on the back of the Falklands, but in fact her share went down, it is just that Labour of the day (if anything more feckless than the IDS tories) suffered voting collapse. Anyway, I digress.

Secondly, the responsibility for equipping the troops properly and rebuilding Iraq were certainly that of the executive - and it certainly failed in both respects. The Snatch landrovers were a disaster.

Britain took a hands off approach to Basra which enabled the Iranian-backed milita to rule the roost, and we now see the consequences - a few desultry British troops holed up in the airport and the Iraq army turning to the Americans for help, whilst the Royal Navy was humiliated by Iran and no-one found to blame.