Labour in "managed decline"
The buzzword among Labour negotiators at the Warwick conference is "managed decline". A Labour official told me this last night - at a time when most people at the National Policy Forum were expecting to win Glasgow East.
Two weeks ago I was told that if Labour did lose Glasgow East Jack Straw would be urged to come forward to "do a Michael Howard" - that is a damage limitation job in the run up to the next election. Now however sources at Warwick tell of Harriet Harman busily descending on negotiating meetings to "fly the red flag of socialism"...
What this means - or meant before the Glasgow East result - is that Ms Harman is fairly obviously positioning herself to lead a political tendency more closely aligned with the wishes of the party's membership, councillors and trade union affiliates than all the other "Brownite" (how long will that be a useful concept?) ministers. It does not necessarily mean she is lining herself up for a leadership challenge right now as some have suggested.
Why are they using the phrase managed decline? Consider the situation at Warwick: the unions, which will provide 3/4 of the party's funding, are asking for two major changes of policy: a slowdown of public service privatisation and a Trade Union Freedom Bill. The have been told "there is nothing to discuss" by ministers and know they will get neither of these things. However, as reported on Idle Scrawl, their plan B was to argue for a whole range of minor reforms, such as free school meals.
There is a dark mood at Warwick and some believe key ministers would like the Sunday papers to be reporting "blow up between unions and Labour".
I asked the quesion: is anybody aware of the acute absence of a "narrative" to combat Cameron with? Because nice as free school meals sound, they do not add up to a narrative. The answer was "no. We are looking at managed decline".
To see why modern politicians, left and right, need narratives just look at Barack Obama's speech in Berlin yesterday. As blogger Guido has pointed out, on paper this could have been a speech by Neil Kinnock - yet Obama has a narrative, a subtext, a seeming mission. This, as nearly every objective commentator outside the government can see, is what it currently lacks. It has tried to find one on the issue of the economy - Des Browne falteringly suggested on BBC Breakfast that Labour had lost Glasgow East "because of economic conditions", which must indicate that the inner party leadership thinks it has failed to do that so far.
So you have a mismatch: the party's membership, councillor base and affiliated trade union bedrock are moving in one direction while the professional politicians are moving in another. This is not unusual in politics and can be a source of dynamism and innovation. But not in these conditions.
There is a declining willingness among the unions to put up with the situation where they get nothing out of the relationship and a declining patience among the new generation of post-Blair politicians with the unions' agenda, which is seen as failing to address modern realities.
If you imagine Labour in a post-defeat situation in 2010 (believe me there are many imagining it right now in Warwick), you have maybe Brown, Browne and Straw in retirement and the last link to the old Labour world of deals with the unions is gone. You have the party beseiged in Scotland and Wales, wiped out in Southern England. Right now the unions and the centre left (Jon Cruddas, Compass etc) are mobilising support for Brown because they can see no advantage in deposing him and know it would mean a swift election. But if the party were in opposition, the irreconcileability of the poltical directions being travelled by the Purnell, Miliband and Hutton wing of the party and that of, say, Unison and Unite, would be hard to disguise.
That's why some Warwick negotiators are talking about "managed decline": the very founding concept of the party as an electoral alliance between social liberals, social democrats and trade unionists may again come under strain.
What happens immediately? I'm waiting for Brown to speak. However as a kind of form guide for the day, if you see the face of Alan Milburn MP on more than one major bulletin, put your money on a leadership challenge.