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Monday, June 01, 2009 

The slow death of New Labour part 94.

Come up with any cliché of impending doom, and it will probably at the moment apply to Labour. Not since the Tories self-destructed so spectacularly during the early 90s has any party looked so utterly broken and devoid of hope. The difference it seems is that the Conservatives by 97 had all but accepted their fate; even now a few true believers and party hacks seem to imagine that by overthrowing Brown and installing someone, anyone, most likely either a Johnson or a Miliband, the inevitable might still be avoided, or at least a complete wipeout fought off. The polls though offer no comfort whatsoever: volatile as they may be, to be down on 22%, behind the Liberal Democrats on voting intentions if there was to be a general election now is to be staring into that hackneyed abyss, with a new poll now suggesting it could be as low as 18%.

Much as such a pitiful score deserves sympathy, no one can claim that Labour didn't bring this on themselves, or that politicians as a whole didn't know what was coming. Our political system rewards two things above all else: loyalty and strength, or at least a faux variety of it. The problem is that when those two things are combined, hubris, contempt and complacency take over. Most notably this seems to have claimed Hazel Blears, James Purnell and Geoff Hoon. Even those that have minute majorities, such as Jacqui Smith, were not immune to the belief that Labour, despite every past indication, was set to become the natural party of government. It would be nice to imagine that this is belated justice for Iraq, but the real reason has now been hanging around for 3 weeks, and still shows no sign of coming to an end.

The latest victim, Alistair Darling, previously the most boring and presumably with it least extravagant member of the cabinet is reduced to saying he is "very sorry" for his various expenses claims, not to mention his repeated apparent flipping of his second home. That it seems increasingly likely that Brown will move him from the Treasury after the coming disaster of the local and Euro elections in 72 hours, most probably with his equally egregious acolyte Ed Balls as the replacement, it brings to mind another cliché, the one about reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Again, there is no one here to blame but themselves, so woeful has the Labour response been to the expenses disaster. Politicians certainly deserve something resembling a break, and overreacting can often be worse than doing nothing, but while both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were doing something last week, even if it was self-serving calls for reform, Brown was nowhere in sight. When he does finally reappear, on Andrew Marr's soft sofa to answer his soft questions, he bizarrely brings up his "Presbyterian conscience", something that has up until now seemingly left him completely untroubled.

The way that the opprobrium seems to have landed almost squarely on Labour is certainly to an extent unfair. Both main parties have their villains; the difference has been that Cameron has played his cards both superbly and cruelly. Even while some of his closest allies and shadow cabinet members have been found to have been some of the worst cheats, most notably Michael Gove, who flipped his second home, claimed £7,000 for furniture and £500 for a night's stay at a hotel, while earning just as much from his newspaper column as he does as an MP, he's succeeded at hugging them close while throwing his backbenchers to have erred to the lions. Brown, by contrast, although alleged by supporters of Hazel Blears to have snubbed her, in contrast to those less explicitly critical of him, has left all those accused out in the cold, and with it ensured that his party as a whole has become tarred with the same brush. Part of it also that as the government they're always going to be the ones to take the biggest kicking, but such has been Labour's inertia that any chance of lessening the damage has been abandoned.

It's still strange though to see the Mail front page claiming that "the vultures" are circling: even though we know that Paul Dacre and Gordon are such wonderful friends, the Mail has hardly ever gone out of its way to give him anything approaching real support, much less his party. It does though has it right: getting rid of Brown now remains the most ridiculous act of vanity which the party could indulge in. Nothing now is going to save them, not even Alan Johnson with his "wonderful" background. Only a party (and its supporters) that has completely lost its grip on reality could imagine that installing a second "unelected" prime minister within a parliament at a time of such cynicism and anger could turn things around. The best possible thing that the party and government could do now is spend the next year being as uncontroversial and all things to all people as it possibly can; go into the dark night with dignity, accepting defeat and then start to rebuild from the ground up. Instead its humiliation and time in the wilderness will be all the more damaging because it still has pretensions which can no longer be justified. And to stretch emphasis by repetition to breaking point, they have no one to blame but themselves.

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