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Tuesday, September 16, 2008 

What happened to the vision we had?

Hands up everyone who prior to today had heard of David Cairns, not including those that have the privilege of him being their constituency MP. Exactly. Whether you agree or not with the proposition that the 2006 September rebellion against Blair was Brown inspired, most will agree that at least that uprising had a few recognisable names involved. If you want to be even more disparaging, it's not completely ridiculous to argue that this rebellion appears to amount to Siobhan McDonagh and her relatives and friends. Cairns used to be one of McDonagh's researchers; more amusingly, and possibly completely inaccurately, according to the Grauniad Diary, David Evans, who was defending McDonagh at the World at One on Monday, has two cats, which are apparently called Siobhan and Margaret, after McDonagh and her sister, the former Blairite general secretary of the party.

As alluded to on Friday, this putsch might have more weight behind it if the protagonists themselves were offering something approaching an alternative, but they aren't. They're not even near to deciding who should replace Brown if their attempt at pushing for a leadership contest is successful. Presuming that Brown himself will be fighting to keep his job, just who exactly will square up against him? Will someone who seriously fancies their chances of leading the party whenever Brown's tenure ends step up to the plate, to use that horrible American phrase? Or will we instead have a stalking horse candidate, with Charles Clarke or perhaps John Reid standing for the unreconstructed Blairite continuation project?

If anyone was hoping that Fiona Mactaggart, one of the very few "big" names that has signed up to the idea of a leadership contest would perhaps articulate what she thinks Labour should be doing outside of taking on the Tories and the most vague declarations of finding a new "narrative", then her addition to the current trend of writing 600 words which are so aimless and indistinct that you forget within 5 minutes what they amounted to proves otherwise. In fact, you can dispense with the entire thing except for the closing paragraph:

The leadership problem that Labour must address is the opposite: we offer means without a bold and inspiring set of ends. Labour MPs can't just hope something might turn up - that would let down the people who need us most.

Ah, so that's it! Labour's got the means; all it needs are the ends! In other words, this is the narrative nonsense all over again. The sudden espousal of this idea of a narrative would suggest that previously New Labour had one. At best, what New Labour has done over the last 11 years is string together a succession of plot devices, based around increased spending on the public services, a strong economy and reacting as quickly and efficiently as possible to whatever it is which is on today's Daily Mail/Sun front page, all tied together by the presence of Teflon Tony himself. While the Conservatives were weak, which is more or less up until 2006, this could still be construed as a defining agenda; it was left to the more pretentious in the commentariat to complain loudly that there was an exceptional vacuum at the heart of New Labour. Now though, with Brown made to look like an idiot every time the news bulletins replay those endless successions of him foolishly claiming to have abolished boom and bust, the country moving towards outright umbrage at the level of tax, and especially the taxes which are funding the busybodies which are now apparently fining people for farting out of turn, and an team in 10 Downing Street which seems to be fighting itself more than reacting to events outside, the claims that Labour is even offering anything approaching means, let alone ends, ring ever more hollow.

Both sides are still of course pointing each other and shouting either "Blairite!" or "Brownite!" at them, and indeed, I have been more than prone to doing so myself. If ever there was a time when this could not be more irrelevant, it's now. Back during the deputy leadership contest, the achingly Blairite Hazel Blears tried to argue, pathetically, that there was no longer any Blairites or Brownites, there was just Labour. It wasn't true at the time, but a year and a few months on it's suddenly applicable when you realise something: neither the Blairites nor the Brownites any longer have any differences over policy; the disagreement is instead between those that think Brown is doomed and needs replacing and those that think it would do nothing whatsoever to restore Labour's standing in the polls. Indeed, if anything all the squabbling is likely to do is further show the party to be divided at a time when most would expecting that clunking fist to be making itself present.

Like with Cruddas and Rutherford last week, the only part of the party that still appears to be both thinking and operating is the left, with John McDonnell making the exact above point. Even he though is resigned to the idea that Labour has lost the next election: he's instead concentrating on how the Labour left as a whole can stay afloat, even if the rest of the party is wiped out by the Cameron advance, sketching out the beginnings of a plan on how to do so.

The moment of truth might well be if one of the bigger names mentioned by Paul Linford in a similarly downbeat post also resigns. Other comparisons have been made to the demise of Thatcher in 1990, but that analogy doesn't really seem to fit either. In 1990 the cabinet were split on Europe and there was fundamental disagreement also over the poll tax. No one can claim at the moment that Brown's cabinet or the wider parliamentary party is split over such defining matters; instead, it's all about Brown himself, his failure to weave the narrative and the Conservative resurgence. The fact of the matter is instead that Labour itself has failed. It has grown too puffed up, too complacent, and like all parties of government eventually do, became the establishment. It still believes that all it needs to do is fight the Tories better and it can still win. Instead, what's apparent is that even if it could fight the Tories better, it would still lose because it has lost the veneer of cover that the economic "boom", built upon unsustainable debt provided. All that's left is for those still in an seat come 2010 to fight it out for the bare bones of a party destroyed not by Brown, although he has certainly contributed to it, but the overweening arrogance of Blairism and its attempt to wield total political control.

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Puts up hand.

Cairns has effectively been the Scottish Labour party spokesman ffor Newsnight Scotland, putting forward the Labour case in Scotland rather more persuasively than his colleagues in Holyrood. I guess this is why the news has been treated a bit more seriously up here. Also, he has been de facto Scottish Secretary as it is assumed that Des Browne has been (rightly concentrating on defence). Cairns is a serious guy, not rash, and - for those within and outwith the Labout party, judging by conversations I had yesterday and today with colleagues from across the spectrum - seemed pretty decent and principled. ALso, according to those that I know within the civil service (Scottish Executive and Scotland Office) CAirns is respected, and not viewed as someone that rushes into things, always questioning motives and the rationale underlying policy decisions. If this is a mark of the man there must be something of substance underlying this.

Best rumour up here - propagated by blogs from all parties, and one Labour PPC I know - is that Dr John Reid - the SOntaran overlord - is ready to renew his decades long feud with Gordon and step into the breach to fight a leadership contest. What truth there is in this, I've no idea.

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