Thursday, January 28, 2010 

The party's over.

Unlike a lot of other teenage revolutionaries, I successfully resisted the temptation to join one of the random far-left groupings that still, despite everything, manage to keep themselves going even as the members doubtless inexorably age. It isn't difficult though to still find affection for groups that believe the shrinking proletariat will, despite all the signs to the contrary, eventually become a revolutionary vanguard with the power and means to overthrow the ruling class. Whether a dictatorship of the proletariat will then follow remains to be seen; that's one of those things that modern Trotskyists never manage to agree upon.

Reading Dave Osler's survey of the potential for a far-left breakthrough at the general election is to re-read the annals of socialist sect history over more or less the last 20 years. Without placing the blame at any particular grouping, the failures are obvious: a complete inability to work together when only an alliance could so much as begin to threaten the Labour party, a shocking lack of leadership material, and that which there is tends to be egotistical and controlling beyond belief, an obsession with fighting yesterday's battles while ignoring the changing nature of modern British society, and most importantly of all, thinking that the electorate will connect with you rather than you having to connect with them.

The spectre which once only haunted the socialist left is now hanging over the left as a whole. The left has just failed to take the greatest opportunity to be handed to it in a generation: a crash which many predicted but which it has been unable to take advantage of. Even as governments turned to Keynes, the left's response has been either muted or non-existent. Just when an alternative has been most needed, as those who have never experienced a recession have had to get used to the feeling of being surplus to requirements, the explanation for why this cycle is doomed to repeat has been almost wholly lacking. Left economists may have been those whose advice has been turned to, but no grouping has built upon this to turn it into a critique of where we went wrong and what has to be changed to even limit the effects should it happen again.

Undoubtedly we can put some of the blame upon a Labour party which has never looked so moribund. It seems determined to spend its few remaining days in power, when not sulking about still being lead by Gordon Brown, showing the poverty of thinking which has condemned it to its current position. All it offers now is the chance for you to keep up with the Joneses, the shallowest, most limited vision of aspiration imaginable. This isn't just down to Brown's intellectual inadequacy when he moves off economics, failing to articulate the "good society" which Blair in flashes painted in his famous verb-less speeches. It's a direct result of Labour's obsession with the dead centre, the triangulation which inhibits its every statement.

Who though is waiting for their chance to prove they could do better? Alan Johnson? One of the Miliband brothers? Harriet Harman? Peter Mandelson? Every single one is dedicated to the continuation of the current policies, with slight changes at the edges. This is the biggest problem facing not just Labour, but the left at large: there are no new potential leaders waiting for their opportunity, rather just the same old bunch of either politicos, trade union dinosaurs or uninspiring if competent incumbents.

Take, just as an example, the "Progressive London" conference being held this weekend. Not content with continuing to use the word "progressive" as if it still means something, it's Ken Livingstone also failing to realise that despite all he's done, for which he deserves praise, he's now yesterday's man and ought to put his dreams of returning to the Mayorship behind him. Look at the panel on "the cost of war" and try not to either smash your monitor or throw up on it: what can Galloway, the political editor of the fucking Morning Star, CND and the Stop the War Coalition say which they haven't already and which hasn't already driven away those who once protested? To take one gathering which isn't completely shooting fish in a barrel, there's Stopping the BNP - no concession to the far right, which features such luminaries as that guy out of that band which made that "Heavyweight Champion of the World" song, alongside an union regional secretary and someone from Love Music Hate Racism. When perhaps discussion on why people vote for the BNP should be foremost in the minds of the left, and how to win back supporters that have crossed the political divides, the first people I know I'd turn to would be someone from a good cause which everyone can get behind but which changes nothing and a guy who's made one hit record. There are a couple of promising panels, such as the one on electoral reform and homes and planning for London's future, something which is actually practical, but the rest is the left banging on about the same old things without ever moving forward, which, unless I'm much mistaken, is what progressive is actually meant to mean.

Even if the left and the Labour party separated some time ago, the massive victories of 97 and 2001 resulted in a lengthy period in which minds went unfocused and everyone pretended that much was fine. Since then it has, quite reasonably, focused on foreign affairs but in doing so allowed domestic politics to rot away. The biggest indictment of the left, if over anything, has been the continuing rise of the BNP, and through its refusal, both to even countenance debating the organisation but also in accepting the new orthodoxy that immigration was fine before but it is out of control now and needs to be tackled. The response at this year's European elections to the biggest far-right electoral threat of modern times? To split the vote away from the Greens, with Bob Crow's hopeless and reactionary No2EU organisation and the 80s throwbacks the Socialist Labour Party both on the ballot alongside all the other non-entities. Just when it needed to come together to fight the greater enemy it fractured just as it has in the past.

Where does the left go from here? The best case scenario is that it gets the rude awakening of its life come 6th of May; although a Conservative majority of the size of Labour's first and second terms thankfully seems unlikely, a victory which is large enough to concentrate thinking is the best possible outcome. It doesn't just need to rebuild; it needs to examine whether it has to demolish and start again. The party's over, and whether it starts again depends entirely on the reaction in the coming months. If, as Chris so accurately describes the prospect, of a government run by the children of the rich for the children of the rich doesn't reanimate the corpse of a dying ideological bent, nothing will.

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Friday, January 08, 2010 

The real perplexing issue about the snowstorm coup.

Now that the "snowstorm coup" or whatever it's being called has already been forgotten by anyone with half a brain it's always instructive to learn the real reasons behind the attempted putsch. Unsurprisingly, both Hewitt and Hoon had been angling for jobs which they didn't get, hence most likely their fit of pique, although why Hewitt wants another job when she's already got a couple of highly lucrative ones thanks to her previous jobs in government is unclear.

No, the real question is just why Bob Ainsworth is so unhappy about Brown's leadership. Widely if perhaps unfairly judged to be the most useless in a long line of hopeless defence secretaries, does he seriously think that he'll ever have a better offer or job than the one he currently has? The words "ungrateful" and "git" really do come to mind.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010 

The world's worst coup.

It's official: the Labour party is crap at coups. While it's tempting to suggest that's something to do with the fact that the Labour party as a whole is crap, and that wouldn't be far wrong, for some reason no one in the party has ever seemed to have the killer instinct. Certainly not when compared to the Tories, for whom plotting over the years delivered the heads of both Thatcher and Duncan-Smith, and almost Major as well.

Perhaps it's got something to do with how those who finally summon up the courage to go public with their demands for the leader to stand down, or this time round for a "secret ballot" to be held, which certainly isn't a coup attempt, oh no, are either yesterday's men or those with chips on their shoulders, ala James Purnell last year. Seriously, did Geoff "Buff" Hoon and Patricia "most patronising person to ever wear a pair of shoes" Hewitt really think they were going to set the world alight by demanding that it was time for Brown to face the parliamentary Labour party? It's hardly Michael Heseltine or that other least likely individual to rebel, Geoffrey Howe, complaining about finding that the bat had been broken by the team captain once he had gone out to bat, is it?

Oh, but they had such a hard-hitting team behind them, didn't they? The Safety Elephant, Labour's honorary BNP member Frank Field, Barry Sheerman, who no one has ever heard of, and Fiona MacTaggart, who first felt that legalising prostitution in certain zones might be a good idea then changed her mind completely once told sweet little lies about people trafficking. Again, you're not allowed to mention that with the exception of Field, who's always hated Brown because he blocked his "thinking the unthinkable" on welfare reform and possibly Sheerman that they're all Blairites. Not that either Hoon or Hewitt have anything as dignified as differences with Brown on policy, although Clarke and Field do; this is all about the fact that they somehow imagine that simply by replacing the man at the top Labour will instantly reclaim its rightful place at the top of the polls, vanquishing the upstart Cameron and leading them into that historic fourth term.

If it wasn't so desperate and counter-productive it would be hilarious. Oh, all right, it is hilarious, and the only real meaningful response is the one on Liberal Conspiracy, which is to come up with some lolcats. While some backbenchers almost certainly are despairing of Brown leading them into the election, the idea that you can do it now bloodlessly and without laying the foundations for internal fratricide is ludicrous. The very real damage being done is, as it was always likely, to the party as a whole: it gives credence to the continual Tory claim that Labour is hopelessly divided and that the only way to sort it out is to install them instead. Already out is the "we can't go on like this" billboard, now featuring Buff and Hewitt instead of Cameron's hideously airbrushed bonce, and you can't help but imagine it's going to be "bucket of shit" time in the papers tomorrow, even when the coup attempt has been so laughable.

The only real debate within Labour has been between those fearing that Brown and Balls have been brewing up a "core vote strategy" and those around Peter Mandelson who despaired of that when honesty was needed regarding the size of the deficit and the need for cuts. As seen by the first movements in the election campaign, both the Tories and Labour are still in denial when it comes to just how sweeping and deep the cuts are going to be, still squabbling over the small print while completely ignoring the bigger picture. Neither party is offering anything other than the same old, same old. That you could probably replace Brown with Cameron as leader of the Labour party and hardly notice any significant policy differences is the biggest indictment of politics as a whole at the moment; that though would be a coup worth writing about.

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Friday, November 13, 2009 

The real story from Glasgow North East.

The story of the Glasgow North East by-election is categorically not that Labour won an overwhelming victory, especially considering the constituency is effectively a rotten borough for the party. A loss certainly would have been, though (a story, that is). It also isn't that the Conservatives received only 1,075 votes, or indeed that the British National Party was only 62 votes behind, although it might be if Chris Dillow's observation that heroin is probably more popular than the Tories was more widely disseminated. Nor is it that unsurprisingly, being a "celebrity", isn't an automatic vote winner: John Smeaton got 258 ballots while Mikey Hughes, a former Big Brother contestant, got 54. It also isn't, although it's again interesting, that the Socialist Labour vote completely collapsed on the 2005 result, when they got an astounding 4,036 votes, down this time to an appalling 47, most likely because Labour was on the ballot when it wasn't previously as a result of Michael Martin standing as the "Speaker".

The real story ought to be the catastrophically low turnout, a derisory 32.9% (Wikipedia has it as 33.2%). This can't be blamed on the lack of choice: all the main parties stood, as well as three various socialist sects, the BNP, three independents, and the Greens. While turnouts at by-elections are usually lower than at a general election, you might have thought it would have been the opposite in this instance, as there was far more choice on the ballot than previously due to the main opposition parties traditionally not standing against the Speaker, with their voters coming out this time when they might not have bothered previously. Instead it dropped from 45.8% in 2005, which was already well below the average of 61%. Did the expenses scandal have any impact? Unlikely. Instead it seems that the people of Glasgow North East, who were already poor before the recession, have lost all faith in politicians of every colour and creed. The only reassuring thing is that the British National Party didn't do better than their 1,013 votes. The current consensus is that the turnout is likely to go up next year when there is an actual, genuine alternative to the current government: Glasgow North East might yet prove to be the rule, not the exception.

Update: Slightly edited after some on Liberal Conspiracy responded with "Eh?" to the first paragraph, which is what happens when I'm trying to write something reasonably snappy and quickly to boot.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009 

Scum-watch: Don't know what you've got till it's gone.

They must have known it was coming, but the defection of the Sun back to the Tories after 12 years of "supporting" Labour has still quite clearly shook Labour. While the paper's representatives claim that it was yesterday's speech that finally confirmed they could no longer support the party, it's been obvious that the switch has been coming ever since last year's Conservative conference, when it gave David Cameron the sort of positive coverage he must have dreamed of. Since then the paper has been overwhelmingly anti-Labour without necessarily being anti-Brown. Some of the signs have been slight: calling Cameron "prime minister" when he was invited onto the paper's recently launched piss-poor online radio show was one, but the demand for an immediate general election earlier in the year was far less guarded.

The final nail in Brown's coffin was more than likely David Cameron's decision during his speech on quangos to focus almost solely on Ofcom, the regulator which is currently investigating whether Sky has an unfair stranglehold on the pay-TV market. With Cameron's culture secretary making menacing noises towards the BBC, which the Murdochs have all but declared war on due to the fact that their news websites simply can't compete with the far superior corporation offerings, it's clear that the Murdochs can now trust Cameron not to hurt their businesses just as they once trusted Tony Blair not to. That's the first condition of Murdochian support filled; the second is that you're going to win, and few are willing to bet anything other than a Conservative victory come next year.

It's still curious then that the paper has come out so decisively for the Tories when there is still plenty of time for anything to happen. The paper, after all, didn't swap sides until March in 97, when the Labour victory was already in the bag. As unlikely as it currently seems that there could yet be a fourth Labour term, it's not the first time that Murdoch's papers have got it wrong recently: the New York Post endorsed McCain last year. As a comfort, it's unlikely to warm the hearts of the Labour leadership.

More likely to do so is that the Sun is no longer the behemoth that it once was. While gaining the support of the Sun has always been second to gaining the support of Rupert Murdoch, the other major reason why Blair and Alastair Campbell entered into the original pact with the devil was, as Campbell said himself, he was never going to allow the Labour leader's head to be in a light-bulb on the front page on voting day again. While actual support for a political party from a newspaper on voting day has little to no impact whatsoever on the votes cast, it was the constant demonisation, undermining and ridicule which Kinnock was subject to, especially in the tabloid press, that helped to ensure he never became prime minister. The key difference today is that the Sun is no longer the attack dog it once was; while the paper ostensibly supported the Tories up until March 97, Kelvin MacKenzie famously told John Major after Black Wednesday that he had a bucket of shit and that the next morning he was going to pour it all over his head. MacKenzie might still be a columnist, and the likes of Bob Ainsworth might now be the person having a bucket of shit thrown over him repeatedly, but unlike back in 97, the media has now diversified to such an extent that the paper doesn't have the hold it once did. If anything, the paper has overplayed both its hand and its influence: it is still feared and respected mainly because of its former reputation rather than because of what it currently is.

One of the many repeated myths spouted today by those who deal in clichés is that the Sun follows its readers rather than getting its readers to follow it. Perhaps at times they get surprised by the strength of reaction, but this is a newspaper that wraps itself in what it thinks its readers want as defence against criticism, as a reassurance that it's what they want, and finally to tell them that because they're saying they want it, then it must be true. If anything the Sun is probably one of those newspapers which has the least loyal readership: the circulation of the broads, while falling, has not changed hugely since the advent of the internet; the tabloids, with the exception of the Mail and the Daily Star, have seen theirs fall massively. At one point the Sun dropped below the 3 million sales mark, triggering an almost panic-stricken price cut. Even with its lower circulation, the Daily Mail now almost certainly sets the agenda far more often than the Sun does.

This didn't of course stop the love affair between Blair and the paper, which remained to the advantage of both. For Blair, always determined to annoy the left of his party while reaching out to the cherished middle Britain, it served a double purpose. For the paper, it meant exclusives of even the most banal significance: Piers Morgan in his diaries was furious on a number of occasions about the access which the Sun got while the Mirror was shut out, most famously when someone (probably Cherie herself) told Rebekah Wade that the Blairs were having another baby, a story which Morgan believed was to be a Mirror exclusive. It meant obscene cooperation between the two, including policy stitch-ups involving asylum seekers. While New Labour and the Sun's politics may not look close at first examination, both shared, indeed share a contempt for civil liberties and an unaccountable lust for social authoritarianism, even if Blair could never come close to putting the paper's demands into action. On foreign policy, the two were inseparable: the Sun has always believed that might is right, and the fact that Blair dressed up his wars in the language of "liberal interventionism" only made them even more attractive.

Arguably, there have only been two occasions when Labour genuinely needed the support of the Murdoch press. Without the unstinting loyalty of all Murdoch's organs between the Iraq war and up to the end of the Hutton inquiry, there was still a possibility that Blair could have been forced out. In 2005 the paper all but abandoned the party except over Blair's wars. The real reason why remains Murdoch's certainty that the war was going to lead to oil at $20 a barrel, something that has not even come close to reality. The other occasion, is, well, now. Just when the party needs support, it loses it. This was the especially brutal part of the Sun's sudden but long in coming decision, knowing full well that it was not just kicking someone while they were down, it was the equivalent of a desecration of a corpse. Any hope that there might be the slightest boost from Brown's speech has been neutralised. David Cameron really must be delighted with the outcome, and again, this only highlights exactly why he's installed Andy Coulson as his very own Alastair Campbell.

As for the Sun's actual supposed reasons and dossier of "Labour failure", they're mostly so flimsy as to be not even worth bothering with. The dossier puts together often completely irrelevant data, and when it doesn't, it naturally cherry picks the information it relies on. On justice the paper absurdly highlights the cost of legal aid, as if the giving those who can't afford it access to briefs was a bad thing. It highlights the rise in alcohol tax receipts since 97 without pointing out this might be something to do with err, the rise in tax on it and not just increased sales. It compares the spending on police with the rise in deaths by stabbings, without mentioning that last year saw the lowest number of murders since the 80s. It also uses the 2007 figures rather than the 2008 ones, which saw a fall from 270 fatal stabbings to 252. Their data even directly contradicts some of the claims made in the leader, such as here:

But they FAILED on law and order, their mantra "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" becoming a national joke. Knife murders are soaring.

Their dossier shows that knife murders between 2006 and 2007 soared by, err, 1. In 2005 they were down to 219, then leapt in 2006 to 269, only two more than there were in 2002. As pointed out above, fatal stabbings were down to 252 in 2008, hence proving the editorial completely wrong. The weapon used should be irrelevant: it's that there are murders, not that one particular weapon is used. The idiocy continues:

Smirking criminals routinely walk free in the name of political correctness, while decent people live in a virtual police state of snooping cameras and petty officials empowered to spy and to punish.

The idea that criminals walk free in the name of political correctness is so ludicrous as to be not worth dealing with, while if there is a virtual police state, it was the Sun that helped create it. When has it ever opposed more CCTV cameras or more state powers? Answer: never.

Most disgracefully of all, Labour FAILED our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving them to die through chronic under-funding and the shambolic leadership of dismal Defence Secretaries like Bob Ainsworth.

Again, their dossier shows that spending on defence has risen year on year. The real people who failed our troops in Iraq were those who demanded they be sent in in the first place, but the Sun has never pointed its finger at itself. It wasn't those fighting them that left them to die, but then it also clearly wasn't Baby P's parents that killed him. It was instead the system:

Billions blown employing a useless layer of public service middle-managers like those who condemned Baby P to die.

Everything about this leader is backward looking, trying to turn the country back to halcyon days which never existed. Murdoch, despite his Australian-American citizenship, is a nationalist wherever his newspapers are. Loyal in China, neo-conservative in America and anti-Europe here, he somehow imagines that if only we were to spend more on defence and give the troops what they "need", they'd instantly "win". This doesn't of course apply to anyone else, but this is the kind of outlook we're dealing with. The leader concludes with:

If elected, Cameron must use the same energy and determination with which he reinvigorated the Tory Party to breathe new life into Britain.

That means genuine, radical change to encourage self-improvers, not wasting time on internal party wrangling or pandering to the forces of political correctness. It also means an honesty and transparency of Government that we have not seen for years.

We are still a great people and, put to the test, will respond to the challenges we face.

The Sun believes - and prays - that the Conservative leadership can put the great back into Great Britain.

Sub-Churchillian jingoism which turns the stomach. This is the relationship which Labour is crying and angry about losing today, to such an extent that it seems to have almost made Gordon Brown walk out on an interview. Labour never needed the Sun, but now it doesn't know what it had.

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Farce, then tragedy.

Last year, when Sarah Brown, clearly nervous, stood up in front of the Labour conference and introduced her husband's address, what was clearly an attempt to deflect criticism was viewed sympathetically, mainly as it was still by no means certain that he would be in the job for much longer after it. As it turned out, the speech, probably now best remembered for his put down of both Cameron and Miliband by saying it was "no time for a novice" was just about good enough to secure his leadership, at least until the disastrous local and European election results earlier this year where another major wobble took place.

This year, Sarah Brown's appearance before Brown's speech, far from performing the role it was meant to, simply exaggerated the extended tragedy which has been his reign. What other response could there possibly be to her description of Gordon as "her hero"? Again, she was intended to act as a prophylactic, protecting him from scathing criticism. You can get away with doing this once; do it twice and you start to look cowardly, and this from the man trying to ram books about "courage" down our necks.

You can though understand why they wanted history to repeat. If last year's speech by Brown did just enough, then this year's didn't even come close. You can't deny that Brown delivered it with plenty of brio, hardly falling into the stereotype of someone so depressed and flailing that he needs to be on archaic, strong medication, but it was the content that so bitterly let him down. To call it a speech would, like Nick Clegg's effort last week, probably be insulting the medium itself. There was no theme, no connection. One of the first things you're taught when it comes to writing essays is that they must have an introduction, a middle and a conclusion, something which applies equally to public speaking. The latest innovation it seems when it comes to speeches by political leaders is to throw such outdated notions out of the window: no one other than wonks is going to listen to or read the things in full anyway, so you might as well just talk about one thing after the other, regardless of any connection between them until you've finished. Brown goes from the economy to attacking the Conservatives to the greatness of those ubiquitous "hard-working families" to the public services to back to attacking the Conservatives again, all of it wholly unconvincing.

This conference, if it is about anything, seems to be a collective gnashing of teeth that they have ever saw fit to defenestrate Tony Blair. Yesterday we saw the party finally falling in love with Mandelson, the nearest it now has to the great man himself. Brown, knowing that the last thing he can be is Blair, instead decided to emulate his policies. All those things we thought we'd seen the last of, such as the pointless counter-productive populism on "anti-social behaviour" are suddenly back as if they never went away. Sure, there were a few bones here thrown in an attempt to buy off those who had hoped that Brown would lead the party left-wards, the most obvious and also best example being the great believer in free markets suddenly deciding that the "right wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market and says that free markets should not just be free but values free" was wrong, but no one believes for a second that Brown intends to act on what he says in this area. Most disturbing was what some have already monikered as "gulags for slags", the shared housing for pregnant 16 and 17-year-olds, rather than putting them up in a council flat. Not only does this buy into a myth, that all you need to do is get pregnant while a teenager and you'll be set up for a life, but that also accidentally becoming pregnant when you're over the age of consent but not yet 18 is something that you should be punished for, not to mention considered to be too stupid or feckless to be able to look after the child either on your own or with the help of your own family without the state barging in. This sense of false victimhood and resentment against those "who will talk about their rights, but never accept their responsibilities" permeated an entire section of the speech. This just illustrates how successful the tabloids have been as painting Labour as friends only of immigrants and single mothers, and how the incredible idea that it's now the white middle classes who are the most discriminated against has become mainstream.

If the idea of "gulags for slags" is chilling, in much the same way was Brown's declaration that "whenever and wherever there is antisocial behaviour, we will be there to fight it." It's worth remembering that the main indicator for so-called antisocial behaviour is not shouting at people on the street or the kind of low-level thuggery over an extended period which the Pilkingtons suffered, but teenagers daring to congregate together in public, doing nothing other than talking to each other. In some senses we've regressed past the Victorian dictum that children should be seen and not heard; now we don't want them even to be seen. Yet this war on childhood in general is, we are told, incredibly popular in focus groups, hence why it's back on the agenda. It doesn't matter that if you focus grouped bringing back capital punishment or permanently chipping sex offenders you'd also doubtless get an immensely favourable response, if a representative sample of the hoi polloi wants it, they'll get it. Or rather, they'll be told they're getting it, as that seems to be just as good as getting it.

On everything other than bringing back the Blair agenda, it was the tiniest most pathetic gestures which were the order of the day. ID cards won't then be made compulsory over the next parliament; MPs guilty of gross misconduct will be able to be recalled; and there'll be a commitment in the manifesto for a referendum on the alternative vote, the most piss-poor non-proportional system of voting other than first past the post. There was no vision here, no adjustment to the world as it is now is, just a repetition of past glories which the electorate are supposed to bask in and so reach the conclusion that the Conservatives would only mess it all up. This was exactly the stance they took in 1997: New Labour, New Danger, you can only be sure with the Conservatives. They were already doomed, but it doomed them even further. In line with that year, tomorrow the Sun declares that Labour has blown it, just as it switched support from the Tories back then. Marx it seems had it backwards: in this instance history is repeating itself, but as tragedy after farce.

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Monday, September 28, 2009 

The spirit as weak as the flesh in Brighton

Far be it from me, an inhabitant of a concrete hell which culture seems to have passed by, to suggest that this nation's seaside towns tend to be inclement at best and downright depressing at worst during the autumn and winter months, but perhaps the weather in Brighton, especially at night, is in tune with the Labour party's collective mood. This is, after all, according to no less a person than Alistair Darling, a party that seems to have lost the will to live, which no longer has the fire in its belly, and for which everyone from the top to the bottom, has a responsibility.

This theme, that the party is sleepwalking to a defeat next year which could finish it as an electoral force, has become so familiar that it's almost beginning to border on the cliche, and it's one which this blog has not exactly challenged. It is one however that the opinion polls are hardly contradicting, the latest showing Labour equal pegging with the Liberal Democrats on a shockingly low 23%. It's still worth remembering that Labour took 27% of the vote in 1983, the year incidentally in which both Blair and Brown were elected to parliament. The "longest suicide note in history", although one which deserves reappraisal, delivered a higher percentage of support than Labour would currently receive. Only those most in loathe with the last 12 years would suggest that's all that the party currently deserves.

No one seriously expects that Labour will be fighting with the Liberal Democrats for third largest party status in 12 months time. The threat is however that the party could be reduced to its long established bases of support, but even these, on an extremely pessimistic reading of the runes, seem to be in trouble. Wales, the historic bedrock of Labour support, seems to be within the grasp of the Conservatives. According to a Financial Times poll last week, the Tories have a 4 point lead in the north, while in Scotland the party is instead struggling with a Scottish National Party that despite the al-Megrahi backlash only seems to be growing stronger. This is coupled with as Dave Osler has identified, the party's loss of a generation. Amazing and frightening as it seems, those children and only just teenagers who were marching against the Iraq war alongside those of us who had only just gained the right to vote in 2003 will next year themselves be taking part in their first general election, and if they fight off the apathy, it seems doubtful they'll be putting an x in the box alongside the Labour candidate, nor will they in the years to come. Just as we promised ourselves we would never vote for the Tories, so they will have promised never to vote Labour. This poses a challenge which no one in either the Conservatives or Labour has even began to consider, let alone broach.

Looking at the hall in Brighton, many of the seats empty, even during Alistair Darling's speech (although that perhaps might be half the reason), the clapping lukewarm at best, it's hard not to infer that many don't have the stomach to even turn up, like at a Christmas party for a company that's shutting down in the new year. Then again, when the best that Darling could pull out of his hat was a "Fiscal Responsibility Act", designed to put in legal terms how the government intends to reduce the deficit, you do wonder whether involuntary euthanasia wouldn't be kinder for all involved. It really does sum New Labour up: its mania for legislation where none is necessary, that it is so shorn of trust that it has to do so to make sure that the public believes what it says while also no doubt being an attempt to tie the Tories' hands should they want to put certain areas of spending off limits.

Just when you think that things can't get any more absurd, up pops the former Prince of Darkness, who could now more appropriately be known as the Grand Wizard of Sunlight. Mandelson does not have a natural charisma, but what he does have, along with the self-regard, is the ability to reassure, which is what his role was today. In a way, his speech was about precisely nothing, even though he did announce an extension to the car scrappage scheme, but rather about enthusing those resigned with the unannounced theme of the conference, fighting back. Mandelson might have made the most ultimate of comebacks, but even his bounce back ability is hardly likely to infect the party as a whole. He has though made Brown's task tomorrow even more difficult. Brown's speech of 2003, his "Real Labour" opus, is now little more than the tiniest of memories. To go by the leaks, that Brown intends to go on the attack on crime and promises that most piss-weak of political battles, a live debate or debates with Cameron prior to the election, it seems that even Brown and his speech writers have given up the ghost. No longer is even the spirit willing, seeming to be just as weak as the flesh.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009 

How the Cameroons will govern.

It says something about just how low most assume Labour's chances of victory are at the next election that we're already moving on to wondering how Cameron's Conservatives will govern and whom they'll govern for, although even Peter Mandelson is now admitting that Labour are the "underdogs" as far as next year is concerned. Partially this has been sparked by Simon Heffer, why-oh-whying as he is wont to do, about how Cameron isn't up to snuff as far as he's concerned on his true blue convictions. Both Bob Piper and Dave Osler agree, the latter summing it up with his observation, based on Norwich North last weekend, that the party is submitting to "Chloeification", fairly bog standard Conservatism with a nicer, smoother face. Chris Paul on the other hand, is unsure whether Heffer is being used by Coulson or whether he doesn't mean it, doing the same thing as those who complained that Blair wasn't a socialist, hence nothing to be scared of: if the high priest of Thatcherism says that Cameron isn't a Tory, then there's nothing to be scared of, right? Unconnected but related was Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Monday who thought there something wrong with these Tories, which Jamie says means we're going to have more of a succession next year than an election.

The Blair comparison is apposite, because as Jamie also quotes, we know full well that many of the highest Cameroons, and the other architects of "change" within the Conservatives also deeply admired Blair. They admired him because he won elections, because he wasn't beholden to his party, and because for a time he meant all things to all people. He was Teflon Tony. They even adored his wars, and still do to an extent, especially the true believers like Michael Gove, who share what you can either call his neo-conservative leanings, or his "liberal interventionism", which in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq was nothing of the sort. The Labour party became so desperate, so the orthodoxy goes, that it turned to someone who was never a natural Labour politician to lead them to victory. The Conservatives, also desperate for victory, have equally turned to someone, who although has an unimpeachable Tory background, doesn't have the natural Tory face, who can do the compassion which Thatcher never had, and who isn't (yet) a laughing stock as John Major became.

As Dave Osler points out though, the Toryism which Simon Heffer yearns for only came into existence in the late 70s, being constantly built upon during the 80s. Whether you call it Thatcherism, Reaganonomics, neo-liberalism, the belief in supply-side economics and the associated trickle down theory, this was what truly made the break from the One Nation Toryism which the post-war party had up till then espoused. The real success of Thatcherism etc is that everyone in the West has pretty much adopted it, or at least the economic side of it. Even now that the ultimate conclusion to Thatcherism has been reached, with the worst recession since the great depression, and when those bastions of neo-liberalism, the banks, have had to be bailed out and either nationalised or nationalised in all but name, all still worship it, as the feeble attempts at reforming regulation shows.

We should however be clear that there was an almost Faustian pact between New Labour and the City. The banks and the hyper-economy provided the tax revenues which overwhelmingly funded the surge in spending on the NHS and education, as well as the sly, feeble attempts at redistribution that made some headway, then failed. Business could do business with Labour, and in return they funded their spending, even if they complained and tried every trick in the book at avoiding the taxman as much as they could. At the last election this philosophy had triumphed so successfully that the Tories were quibbling about amounts of money that Boris Johnson would describe as "chicken-feed". It was on other things, such as immigration and crime on which they was something resembling a difference between the two parties, although doubtless if Michael Howard had won there may well have been a drift from the manifesto, written by someone called David Cameron.

Now we're faced with much the same situation but in reverse. Whoever wins, cuts will have to be made, it's just where and how deep that the argument is over, even if Gordon Brown and others try to deny it. The Tories' promise that both health and international aid will be protected, with possibly education and maybe defence also joining the party. The other promises made were that inheritance tax would be raised from its current threshold to £1 million, and that marriage would be recognised in the tax system, helping to fix our "broken society", but even those now look uncertain, with Cameron maintaining it might well be difficult to achieve. Both of those things are naturally Conservative policies which the left would and should oppose, especially the former when inheritance tax ought to be one of the weapons used in bringing down the deficit. Dave Osler notes that the "Chloe" generation of New Tories tend to defend the NHS in its current state, and there's little to suggest otherwise from a survey the Guardian conducted with 66 prospective candidates in September last year, although it's slightly out of date due to the economic crisis then not being fully developed. What is noticeable though is their social Conservatism: while it has always been Labour that has led social liberalisation, whether it be on abortion, the legalisation of homosexuality etc, the Conservatives have come to accept the changes over time.

What exactly are we facing then, come next June perhaps? To begin with, there probably won't be much difference. They might, as suggested, have an emergency budget with 40 days and bring in cuts quicker than Labour would. What does begin to chill the blood however though is the promise of "austerity", as used by George Osborne, which only brings echoes of the post-war years and the early 50s. Why it should chill is because you know full well that Osborne and Cameron will not be those experiencing their "austerity", just as they have never experienced it before. Secretly, it's difficult not to feel that the Tories are gleeful at getting the opportunity to take a sword to public spending. Like with New Labour, they're unlikely to really hammer away for the first couple of years, but after that it's anyone's guess as to what they'll do, let alone if they get a second term. On crime and law and order, Chris Grayling's recent "nick their sim card and bike" gimmickry reminded everyone of New Labour's similar ideas which were derided. With welfare, they've promised much the same as Labour's plans again, except with bells on. We shouldn't imagine that we're going to return to Victorian values or back to basics, but what we are going to experience is new Blairism, as argued before. The Labour party was there to try to contain Blair's worst excesses, even if it failed miserably most of the time. With Cameron, and with a media already licking its lips in anticipation at the Tories returning, there will be no constraints upon Cameron. With Blair, we had an "ethical" foreign policy, a sop to "wets" like Robin Cook. William Hague has already made clear that they intend to return to realpolitik, and relegate human rights somewhat in their dealings with the likes of the Saudis and China, and with Liam Fox and Michael Gove in tow, it's difficult not to imagine that neo-conservatism proper won't rear its ugly head. We've already seen that Cameron has joined up with homophobes from Poland and other assorted oddballs in the European parliament; if that doesn't embarrass him, what will?

Heffer then is wrong. Cameron and his party will be Conservatives, but then we've had much the same under Brown and Blair. Cameron and co will just turn everything up a notch. It probably won't please the hardline Tory faithful, but they'll get used to it, just as Labour supporters hoping for a turn left did. The challenge will be for the left to create a truly alternative vision, which does offer a difference, something which for now is nowhere in sight, even as the best opportunity ever to make the case for it has appeared and also now seemingly, disappeared just as quickly.

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Friday, July 24, 2009 

Norwich North thoughts.

The best that Labour can say about the result in the Norwich North by-election is that it could have been a whole lot worse. There were suggestions at the beginning of the campaign that they could slip into third, fourth or even fifth place, such was the disenchantment with the party, mainly because of the way that Ian Gibson was defenestrated, not just the government's performance as a whole. To be sure, to go from a majority of over 5,000 to a Tory majority of over 7,000, a swing of 16.5%, is ghastly, but not so terrible when you consider that all three main parties lost votes on the 2005 result.

The Liberal Democrats especially must be bitterly disappointed and wonder what they did wrong. There were no real scandals among their expenses, they could claim to be the true heirs to Gibson's politics and punish Labour for getting rid of their popular incumbent, and yet they lost close to 3,000 votes, mainly to the Greens and possibly Craig Murray, but also probably to the Tories.

As for the Greens, the claims that they could win the seat turned out be hot air, although ordinarily a vote of 3,350 would be a cause for celebration. In truth their main target is Norwich South, which they hope to win next year along with Brighton and Hove. If they do, they'll be overthrowing Charles Clarke, which will be an extra cause for breaking out the (organic) champagne. Similarly, UKIP must be ecstatic with their performance, which must surely be one of their best parliamentary results in terms of votes, if not the best, getting an impressive 4,068. Likewise, although Craig Murray is disappointed with his result, 953 votes is a spectacular result for an independent, especially one who was completely ignored by the media, and to beat the BNP into 7th place is no mean feat. Most amusing though is the Libertarians, who received a grand total of 36 votes, behind the Monster Raving Loonies. Who knew that turning the country into an Ayn Rand style fantasy isn't popular?

It seems fairly pointless to try extrapolating anything from this result, as the chances of it being repeated next year seem doubtful. Voters that won't have bothered turning out for a by-election most likely will make the effort come the general election, and the parties outside the main three will almost certainly be squeezed except in their strongholds, especially as the fury over the MPs expenses is slowly forgotten. The question remains just how badly Labour is going to do, rather than how well the Conservatives will - whether it becomes a 97 style wipeout, or a result which the party can recover quicker from. Frankly, it both deserves and needs a 97 style wipeout for it to come to its senses, but the pain that will cause is still difficult to imagine.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009 

Legislation which doesn't amount to a hill of beans.

One of the more cutting attacks of recent months on the government came not from the Conservatives but from that other continual provider of friendly fire, Frank Field. Writing about government business which was slowly winding its way towards conclusion, he said "week after week MPs have been turning up but with almost no serious work to do. There is the odd bill to be sure. But there is no legislative programme to speak of ... the whole exercise is vacuous."

The problem with Field's criticism is that it assumes that fresh legislation is the be all and end all of government, and it has indeed become one of the key measures by which they are judged. This misses the point that it is not the quantity of bills which are passed, and New Labour has in the past been rightly accused of legislative mania, but rather the quality, on which Labour again falls down on. The immediate answer to passing frenzies and quick to evaporate moral panics is always to get something on the statute book, regardless of how those laws will end up being used and the overall effect they will have. The shining example remains the Dangerous Dogs Act, passed after a tabloid campaign and which outlaws entire breeds of dog, regardless of the dog's own nature. Last year's knife panic brought demands for anyone carrying a knife, regardless of age or reason, to be sent to prison, something which most judges are still rightly either ignoring or evading.

With this in mind, some criticism of what amounts to the next Queen's speech announced yesterday would be unfair. Who can blame a government in uncertain economic times, when it doesn't frankly have a clue how much money it will eventually have to play about with, from not having the most ambitious legislative programme mapped out? Added to this is that we are now less from a year away from an election, where the real big reforms and changes will doubtless be held over to put into the manifesto, and you're likely to be left with what is tinkering around the margins, dropping some of the more unpopular formerly proposed initiatives, with part-privatisation of the Royal Mail postponed and ID cards now not to be forced on anyone (although the real problem all along, the database, will still be around) while also attempting some populist gestures such as allocating more money to social housing building.

As of course this though is New Labour, they can't help but add some very real stings in the tail. The added measure in the housing commitment to make sure that "local residents" are first to be considered for new council homes has only one target, and that is the persistent myth, mined ruthlessly by the BNP, that migrants, asylum seekers and foreigners have the first crack of the whip. It's true that all councils have to bump up those who are in genuine need, whether homeless or otherwise, up towards the top, but asylum seekers and migrants are excluded from the very beginning until they are given leave to remain. Only 5% of social housing is allocated to foreign nationals, but this hasn't stopped the repeated claims that this isn't the case. That the government has now given succour to the idea, regardless of whether or not they also point out at the same time that it isn't true, it's the sort of legitimisation which the BNP and other discontents thrive upon and which they will be pointing out for years to come. It might not be entirely fair to call this "British homes for British workers", but it's not far from it.

Much the same is the case with the kind, generous, selfless gesture which is the offer of a job or training to the young who have been unemployed for over a year. Not a new announcement, but the stick being wielded is. Those who refuse a job, presumably regardless of what it is, will lose two weeks' benefit, and so on and so forth. The opposing argument will be that beggars can't be choosers, but putting someone into a job which they simply aren't suited to do is no solution at all. This conditionality was inherent in James Purnell's welfare reform bill, and it was just as damaging and potentially pernicious there as it is here. Most of those currently out of are work will welcome the possibility of a job, but not any job. One explanation for why this is especially being targeted at the young and out of work is that there is the potential to save money: tax credits, which eat into the savings made when the older out of work find employment, are not payable to those under 24. The government is therefore a winner regardless of whether a job is taken up or not.

Alongside the welcome retreat from the targets culture ingrained in the public sector under Blair, to be replaced by various rights to treatment or private tutors, although where the money's coming from is unclear, the most conspicuous absence is any real reform neccesitated by the expenses scandal. This might be for the better, as the beginning of this post argues, as legislation cobbled together in haste often fails all those involved, and it seems the current bill being rushed through is no exception, but for a prime minister who came in promising further constitutional reform, the final flushing out of the hereditary peers from the Lords is about as tame as it gets. It just confirms that as with the banking sector, parliament is getting back to normal, and far quicker than the City did. It can be argued that the public themselves didn't want major reform of Westminster, just an end to the gravy train, but at the same time it fails to answer the now critical insult that all politicians are more or less the same.

It's an attack which sticks, because all this latest package confirms is that Labour and the Conservatives are fighting a battle not over ideology, but over the little details. The key differences seem to be that the Conservatives will be slightly tougher, whether on law and order, foreign policy and the welfare system, and cut slightly more, except on health and foreign aid, and possibly education than Labour will. Little else really separates them. Neither is prepared to be honest about what they would cut, whether it's Labour who don't seem prepared to admit that they'll cut anything, or the Tories, who have no intention of telling just how harshly they're going to cut public spending. Here is where Alan Johnson's suggestion that there could be a referendum on voting reform at the same time as the election could have made so much difference. The promise that you would no longer be forced to decide which is the lesser of the two evils, with the Lib Dems joining the fray in certain areas, could have helped to suggest that there will shortly be a real choice. Instead we're fobbed off with the same old leftovers as before, regardless of which party is proposing what.

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Friday, June 05, 2009 

Brown's bastards and the death of a once proud party.

To call Friday the 5th of June 2009 a day of contrasts would be something of an understatement. On the positive side for Labour and Gordon Brown, what was almost certainly a Blairite coup appears to have been averted, and with it, the Blairites themselves have almost to an individual been purged, or rather, for the most part purged themselves. The only Blairite true believers who remain in the cabinet are probably Tessa Jowell, who ought to be history, Andy Burnham and Peter Mandelson, but who now seems to have bizarrely became as pro-Brown as he was pro-Blair. Thanks to James Purnell, Brown has also apparently been foiled from carrying out the wholesale changes he wanted: Alistair Darling stays chancellor and Ed Balls, his supposed replacement, remains at education, both of which are non-changes for the better. Likewise, that both John Denham and Alan Johnson have been promoted, two of the most capable and pleasant ministers within the government is also a wise move. Johnson has the potential to be a vast improvement over the last three home secretaries (what happened to Shaun Woodward, being so talked up earlier in the week?), and you can also detect perhaps an ulterior motive from Brown, to be giving probably the most poisoned chalice within government to the man so heavily tipped to be his successor.

Those are however the only positives to be taken, as the local election results have been completely cataclysmic for Labour, something which the media, fascinated and intrigued by the machinations at Westminster has failed to really delve into. Labour lost control of its last four remaining county councils, and some of the wipeouts have been breathtaking, losing 30 of 32 seats in Staffordshire and 17 of 21 seats in Lincolnshire. Earlier in the week the talk was that if Derbyshire was lost then Brown should have been finished; it's gone, and he's for the moment clinging on. The results leave Labour with only around 130 councillors across such councils, and the party itself reduced to a rump, moribund with the activists in despair. We shouldn't write the party off, and the Conservatives have recovered from similar disasters, but it does make you wonder whether this isn't the slow, agonising death, not yet ofLabour itself, but New Labour certainly.

The ostensible Labour share of the vote is 23%, 1% down on its previous poorest showing, but that covers up just how terrible the kicking has been. Almost certainly the European election results will be even worse; it surely isn't unthinkable now that Labour's share of the vote could be well below 20%, and that is especially chilling when you consider how many former Labour supporters will have crossed the box for the BNP. Hopefully most will have plumped instead for UKIP or the Greens, but Nick Griffin gaining the respectability of a Europe seat is an ill wind about politics in general. That the Conservative vote has dipped to 38% from its previous high suggests that all are suffering to some extent, but Labour the most. The one consolation that remains is that on a similar share of the vote at a general election, unlikely as most who voted for the minor parties or stayed at home will return to the big three and turn out, the Tories will only have a majority of around 4 seats. This is still not yet a Conservative walkover, with the voters attacking Labour and politics as a whole rather than coalescing around David Cameron, although that may well be the next step.

Like earlier in the week, we should again be celebrating that another Labour careerist Blairite, as even John Prescott described James Purnell, walked the plank in such a sickeningly self-righteous manner. In his resignation letter, Purnell hilariously wrote that "[I]t calls for a government that measures itself on how it treats the poorest in society." This is the man that has just presided over changes to the benefit system that penalise, punish, harass and prosecute those very people. Even more staggering has been Caroline Flint's mood swing from backing Brown to the hilt only last night to deciding today that he had been using her and the other women in the cabinet as nothing more than "window-dressing". Mercilessly satirised by the Heresiarch, this seems to have far more to do with the fact that Brown didn't consider her for promotion, despite offering that she could attend cabinet, hence the throwing of the toys out of the pram in a political hissy fit that will have doubtless delighted the "women against Gordon" she was alleged to have been associated with. That she recently posed for the Observer in a range of dresses, some of which have predictably found their way onto the front pages of tomorrow's newspapers (not to mention this blog) seems to have done nothing to deter her from using such a potentially hypocritical turn of phrase.

One thing should be made clear. Despite the fact this is almost definitely a coup attempt led by Blairites (and every single resignation with the exception of Margaret Beckett has been by Blairites), there is no real quarrel here about policies. While there were policy differences in the past between the Blairites and Brownites, however slight, there is now nothing whatsoever to separate them. This is purely about Brown, and how they don't think they can win the election with him in charge, not that Alan Johnson or David Miliband will lead the party back into the promised lead of constant reforming revolution; Johnson after all has just been successful as health secretary mainly because he has allowed the NHS to settle after constant restructuring. This is why if Brown is to be overthrown, and that still in my opinion, despite everything, should not happen, it should be by the backbenchers, not the "bastards who have never had a job in their lives". There are still differences in opinion back there, and it is only they who can claim to have the interests of the party at heart. The anger at the grassroots at the manoveuring of Blears and Purnell is palpable, as the Grauniad's letters page shows, making a bad situation for those already stricken by the expenses scandal even worse.

Even then though, there is no indication whatsoever that they would be listened to. Brown certainly doesn't trust them, or rate them, as there will now be 7 unelected ministers in the cabinet. How can Brown or anyone else claim to be interested in genuine reform when he has to turn to the Lords repeatedly to shore himself up? While he may not have appointed peers in the same way that Blair did, this apparent contempt both for backbenchers and for the idea that our reprensentatives should be elected rather than cronies is another sign of his weakness. For now he might have saved himself, or rather the Blairites might have saved him through their own pitiful conspiring, but Labour is set to sink whoever is at the helm. 15 years of New Labour has destroyed it, and who knows how long it will be before even the slightest recovery will begin.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009 

With a bang, not a whimper.

Normally the departure of Hazel Blears would be a wonderful cause for celebration. The epitome of absolutely everything wrong, not just with New Labour, but with politics as a whole, she jumped before she was pushed. No one imagined that Blears, despite being an awful politician, was also on the make or out to "take what was hers", in the words of Michael Martin; perhaps her expenses are still a genuine oversight or based upon bad advice from the fees office. It was however the icing on the cake when it came to someone who based their entire career up until very recently on unstinting, unquestioning loyalty and belief in the righteousness of absolutely everything that New Labour has done, manifesting itself most vividly in her recent interview with George Monbiot, when her wild-eyed fanaticism looked as if turning instead into sad, desperately lonely certainty.

In normal times, Blears would be a pygmy, in more than one sense. There is however no other interpretation but that this was further revenge from a woman who has been both scorned and wronged, who knew she had the power to inflict yet more damage on an already flailing prime minister. Whether she was involved in the leaking of Jacqui Smith's resignation, as alleged by some in Downing Street or not, this was without doubt a further act to that. Her resignation letter is as pointed, both in its repeated emphasis on how she will be returning to her roots, and in its failure to pay any real tribute to Brown.

Downing Street should have been able to laugh this off. This is after all a non-entity, someone with ideas above their station who failed miserably when she stood for the deputy leadership, coming dead last. Her brand of clap-happy, shiny smiley ultra-Blairism could not be more out of fashion, and her brandishing of a cheque on television to pay back the over £10,000 she owed in capital gains tax could not have been further removed from those she claims to have backed and defended her entire life. Some of those doubtless could not have put together a cheque for £100, let alone that sum. Indeed, for someone who claims to have the interests of the Labour party at heart, she has almost certainly just cost some Labour councillors their seats, and taken votes away from their European candidates. The irony of the local government minister, through an act of petulant, pathetic self-indulgence, doing the equivalent of shoving a bottle up local Labour activists will ensure that her return to Salford is unlikely to be a happy one.

Quite how weakened Number 10 has been by this is shown by someone having the temerity to claim that Brown and others had "smeared" Blears by apparently leaking further information about her tax payments to the Torygraph. Blears has just done the equivalent of leaving a turd on the doorstep of Brown's den, and her allies are suggesting she's the victim in all of it! Whether there is a concerted plot by "friends" of Blears, almost all Blairite women, which includes Jacqui Smith, who seemed to laugh her way through a Sky News interview to kill Gordon through bleeding to death from a thousand cuts or not is impossible to tell. What is clear however is that despite the claims of Polly Toynbee, this does have the potential to cause deep resentment within the party, perhaps not on the level which consumed some Tories after Thatcher was deposed, but poison nonetheless. The plotters almost to an individual all seem to be Blairites, or Blairite-sympathisers, some who have always either disliked or loathed Brown, and now seem to finally sense they can have their revenge. This wouldn't be completely ignoble if there was a genuine leader waiting in the wings who could unite the party once Brown goes, but there isn't. Does anyone honestly believe that Alan Johnson is a long-term Labour leader rather than a stop gap? Is David Miliband even approaching ready to become prime minister, even only for a couple of months until he'd have to call an election?

There is however still one way out of all this, as proposed by the Heresiarch, which I thoroughly agree with and am rather shamelessly borrowing. Brown on Friday should go to the palace and ask for parliament to be dissolved for an election. It's the one thing that would wrongfoot absolutely everybody, his opponents in the party, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and doubtless the Queen herself. The Labour ranks would be forced to get behind him, the other parties would have to actually tell us what their alternative will look like, and it would also appease those who are demanding an election now because of the expenses scandal. It would remove those who have said they are standing down far quicker than they might like, also a very good thing. At the same time there could also be that referendum on voting reform, a vote for which David Cameron could almost certainly not ignore, and which would be one thing which Brown could cite as his legacy, as well as being the biggest change which the expenses debacle demands. Whatever Brown now does, he's going to lose. Why doesn't he go down fighting, not just for his leadership but for the country as well?

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009 

Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.

If the weekend and yesterday were bleak times for the government and especially Gordon Brown, then today can only be described as the worst of times. Normally, the announcement that three ministers would be stepping down would be only met with a shrug, even if the home secretary was among them. Such though is the precarious position which Labour finds itself in, it instead looks as if this a complete breakdown of control from the very top.

Again, no one will be shedding any tears for the departure of Jacqui Smith. She may be, as Iain Dale says, "a thoroughly nice woman", but she was simply the worst of all worlds when it came to being in charge of the Home Office. Having been promoted from chief whip, it was her expenses claims which did for her, but it really should have been both her dreadful failure to make the case for any of the policies which she was attempting to ram through parliament, and doubtless connected to that, the fact that all she seemed to be doing was instituting policies that had been decided for her. The one policy that she did have any real apparent interest in, the ridiculous and dangerous idea that men that paid for sex with women that were "controlled" by others could be charged with rape has had to be toned down, with the police highly critical of how on earth they were supposed to be able to enforce it. She can't exactly be blamed for the 42 days debacle, as that was undoubtedly Brown's policy as much as it was hers, but her continuing attraction to identity cards, her knee-jerk response to the knife crime panic of last summer, and most of all the Damian Green disaster, as well as the ludicrous banning of various "extreme" individuals all made her a typically tin-eared Labour home secretary. She wasn't quite as bad as either David Blunkett or John Reid, both of whom could have been accurately described as two of the most dangerous men in the country when they were at the Home Office, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement of her tenure.

Everyone though expected Smith to be out of a job come the reshuffle. It's that somehow, either she or someone couldn't keep the fact she was leaving out of the public domain until the time as when Brown had made his decision as to who her replacement will be. The question, as always, has to be whether it's conspiracy or cock-up, whether the leak is meant as a passing fusillade against Brown for the lack of support she seems to have been given. There is, it must be said, always rumour mills whirling furiously before expected reshuffles, but when a prime minister is as weak as Brown currently is, it seems utterly bizarre that he should be adding to it himself as he seems to have been by not given Alistair Darling his full support. Darling, as others have pointed out, has spent the last couple of years taking the flak for Brown, as it is after all his work while chancellor which has left Darling in such an enfeebled position, yet despite his loyalty and willingness to eat the equivalent of a shit sandwich repeatedly for his master, he's now been left out in the cold like the other miscreants which Brown thinks he can sacrifice. We all know why Hazel Blears' expenses claims can be described as "totally unacceptable" while James Purnell and others are given more equivocal backing, but why treat Darling in such a way?

It gives the impression that Brown has lost whatever remaining grip he had. Not the grip on the party itself - that had long gone, but now his hand seems to have left the tiller of the cabinet as well, those few that will still publicly defend him. Such events will always be exaggerated, but the Daily Mail again doesn't seem too far off tomorrow when it screams that the rats are leaving the sinking ship. If you wanted to indulge in conspiracy, as alluded to above, you might think that Smith's leaving was designed to make everyone engage in just this sort of speculation. Why else would you further undermine a prime minister prior to elections where it now seems credible that Labour could face its worst ever post-WW2 results unless you wanted to throw a spanner completely into the works?

Right on cue, the muttering in the Grauniad by the likes of Pollyanna Toynbee, Jackie Ashley and Martin Kettle has moved from their columns into the editorial itself. Tomorrow it calls for Brown to go with dignity. It isn't a bad argument, as far as they go, but it's the wrong timing again. The time for Brown to go and still retain some respect was last summer, not now. To go now would be utter humiliation, and surely those who wrote it must realise that. Regardless of Brown's mistakes and his personal failings, he still doesn't deserve such an ignominious fate. It is however typical of the modern Guardian that it called far too late for Blair to go and it now abandons Brown at the worst possible time, both for him and for the party. For far too long it indulged Blair's worst excesses with meek criticism while it has repeatedly failed to show the same fairness towards Brown. Who are these other individuals in the cabinet that would do a better job, but which the paper doesn't even deign to name? It too can't face up to the reality: that regardless of leader Labour in its current form is doomed. It needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, to re-engage with its roots, to become a genuine party of the working person again. No one in the current cabinet is prepared for such radical thinking. It has become a small "c" conservative party, on some measures even more right-wing than the actual Tories themselves are. No party can so disengage from its supporters for so long and expect to survive, and it is at long last facing its denouement. The Mona Lisa itself is falling apart.

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