Tuesday, May 12, 2009 

The curse of Toynbee.

Even those of us who are sympathetic towards Polly Toynbee's politics have found her on-off relationship with Gordon Brown to be bordering on the strange. The stream of articles singing his praises, then condemning his failures, then giving him one more chance, then repeating the pattern have all the sophistication of pulling the petals off a flower while saying he loves me and he loves me not in turn. Finally, it seems that all bets are off: yesterday Toynbee called for Brown to be overthrown after the European elections. To be fair, her main argument for the defenstration of her past hero is sound: he has, as she says, made the poor poorer and the rich richer. This however was always to be expected when New Labour felt that it couldn't actively redistribute, or even use the word, such was the fear that the newspapers and Conservatives would cry class war (which they did regardless). Instead, it had to do what it wanted to below cover, using the tax credit system primarily, a fantastically inefficent and expensive way to do so when it could have just lifted the very poorest out of tax altogether and instituted a citizen's basic income, for instance.

Again, to be fair to Toynbee she made much the same argument, but that didn't stop her calling for the nosepegs in 2005, and supporting Brown even when it was apparent that he was unlikely to prove the change from Blairism which was required. How could he when he was the person who signed the cheques, and who indeed, some argue was ostensibly the prime minister when it came to much domestic policy, especially that interwined with the Treasury? She even admitted at one point that the SDP, the party she stood as a candidate for in 1983, was far to the left of the party she now allied herself with.

Like how the SDP was the wrong move at the wrong time, when the enemy was Thatcherism rather than the Bennites and the Militant Tendency, it's now also surely not the right time to get rid of Gordon. The time for doing that was last summer, when it would have given the successor a chance to bed in before the election, and also now we realise before the banks were to be bailed out. Even then it was difficult to believe that the replacement, whether it be David Miliband, Alan Johnson or someone else would be able to win a fourth term; now it seems just as plausible as Dr Death himself returning, winning the leadership and doing just that. Even if the polls continue in the way they're going, with both Labour and the Conservatives suffering as a result of the expenses debacle, the Tories are going to romp home, and David Cameron's performance today will have only increased the chances of that. Getting rid of Brown now will only damage Labour further, and while having one "unelected" (I loathe the implication that Brown is unelected; we vote for parties, with the individual standing for the party only being of significance in the constituency itself. Do we really want a completely presidential system?) prime minister might just about be OK, having two in one parliament is simply not going to wash. If Brown goes now, is the replacement, when he inevitably loses the next election, going to resign then as well? Better that the next year is spent limiting the damage, ensuring that there is a viable successor, as there isn't at the moment, and then making certain that the Conservatives face an actual opposition from the very beginning, as the Tories failed to provide during Labour's first term and more or less up to the Iraq war.

In any case, as Toynbee has now pronounced, it seems the opposite will most likely happen: expect a crushing Labour victory this time next year and Gordon Brown still being Labour leader and prime minister in ten years time.

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Monday, July 28, 2008 

Brown should go with dignity.

It seems almost perverse, only slightly more than a year after he finally took the job, to be suggesting that it is already time for Brown to relinquish it, but events have swung both so swiftly and decisively against him that is quickly looking as though it's the only option remaining. Governments which are beset by in-fighting and plotting, and that is undoubtedly what is now happening within the Labour party, on a scale probably not even seen during the days of the supposed September letter writing plot against Blair in 2006, do not last long, and despite "big beasts" such as John Prescott and others calling for the plotters to take a holiday, that is clearly not what has happened.

Brown faces essentially three options. The first is that he decides to stand down now and allows a leadership contest to take place, without the need for bloodshed or the sort of fallout which many argue destroyed the Conservatives almost up until the election of David Cameron, even if they did subsequently win the 1992 election after Thatcher was forced out. The second is that he is overthrown, or forced to go, probably through either Jack Straw or Geoff Hoon telling him that he has lost the confidence of the party. The third is that he toughs it out, and whether or not he develops a strategy before the Labour party conference for fighting back, the end result will almost certainly be defeat at the next election.

Indeed, undoubtedly whoever leads the Labour party will be defeated at the next election. The only question remaining is how heavy that defeat will be, and whether it will crush the Labour party to the extent which New Labour crushed the Tories in 1997, or if the polls are accurate, potentially even more devastatingly. While we can only surmise and caveat predictions for what will happen, under Brown the party's defeat threatens to be as catastrophic as that suffered in Glasgow East. This wouldn't just be a disaster for the Labour party or the left in this country, but for democracy itself. The only real opposition to Blair for his first two terms was from his own backbenchers, and eventually, the media, and it wasn't so long ago that commentators were denouncing the elective dictatorship which the first past the post system essentially provides to those who win by a huge margin. Under Cameron the presidential style of government could be even more profound and autocratic; few of the Tory backbenchers seem likely to raise much protest at whatever their policies will be once in office. The one main sticking point might well be the area which so plagued Major: Europe.

In the interests not just of the Labour party itself, but in the balance of power then, Brown's resignation now would be welcome. There are still a few good reasons for why he should fight on, though. Beyond a shadow of a doubt there is no instant successor, or by any means any suggestion that they would necessarily do any better. None of them, whether they be David Miliband, Alan Johnson or even John McDonnell have either the profile or the support within the party itself to quickly become the presumed next in line. Then again, how many could have named David Cameron prior to his decision to run for the Conservative party leadership? While both he and George Osborne were lined up as being the next big things by Michael Howard, the big money to begin with was on David Davis, with his apparent failure to connect with the audience at the Conservative party conference, or more cynically, the media, considered to be the final blow to his campaign.

Another good reason is that Brown standing down would suggest once and for all that the Labour party has stopped caring about the running the country and is instead again fully back in in-fighting mode, further wrecking its opportunities. While there is a good chance of this taking place, and some again link Major's final downfall to his decision to stand down from the leadership and fight to be re-elected, could Labour really fall any further? The drift that has become impossible to ignore over the last few months has become all encompassing, and Brown shows no signs whatsoever of being able to turn it around. His last remaining defence seems to be that he is still best placed to bring the country through the economic downturn, and while this seems, after his "no more return to boom and bust" soundbite being well and truly exposed to be laughable, it still probably rings true with many. Stability rather than uncertainty, even if the stability is akin to a table with three legs, is always preferable.

Lastly, if Brown did stand down, whoever became the next leader would almost certainly have to call an election far sooner than the 20 months down the line which is currently envisaged. Not only would Labour be at an immense disadvantage because of its lack of cash, but a snap election would probably not give the party's fortunes as much of a chance to recover. One either next spring or next autumn could still see the credit crunch biting, and with Cameron remaining in the ascendant.

There is though one remaining reason for why Brown should go now. For both his own sake, and for the sake of his dignity. Despite all the jibes against him, and all the endlessly unamusing insults which fill the messages boards and comment sections, Jock/Bottler McBroon and worse, his departure now would be seen as tragic rather than pathetic. He would be the aspiring leader who once he had got there simply found that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and that with events conspiring against him, he simply couldn't manage to be the successor to Blair that so many hoped he would be. Blair himself said it was not ignoble to want to be prime minister, and while it might well be strange and weird, it certainly isn't. Furthermore, we've seen what happened as a consequence of Blair's refusal to go: the collapse in Labour support which Brown hasn't been able to bring into check. Brown must not now repeat that same mistake. Unless he wants to be remembered, increasingly, like John Major now is for tucking his shirt into his underpants and shagging Edwina Currie, he should recognise his weakness and let the next generation take over. Failure with dignity is not ignoble; failure without it most certainly is.

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