BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Paul Mason
« Previous | Main | Next »

Labour in "managed decline"

Paul Mason | 10:18 UK time, Friday, 25 July 2008

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is ironic that the phrase they use to describe their policy on our nation's 'sea defences' now describes their policy to the party..

    Now watching Gordon at Warwick, trying to do a 'down the shops with milk and petrol' routine - I'm half expecting him to mention 'kid's trainers..'

  • Comment number 2.

    managed decline? because there is nothing left to do but seat warm?

    talking of the vision thing the only thing i remember about kennedy is the 'we plan to send a man to the moon and these other things nothing because they are easy but because they are hard'.

    so what is the vision? getting the uk onto sustainable energy 'not because it is easy but because it is hard' and because whoever does it best will be in the economic premier league.

  • Comment number 3.

    Stumbling over the amount of the winter fuel allowance, using the single word 'hardworkingfamilies'... trying to tick the boxes, but he just ain't as slick as Teflon Tony. You kinda of new he was just reading from a script, but at least Tony could 'fake sincerity', whereas Gordon probably is quite sincere, but he just doesn't seem to be able to put this across..

  • Comment number 4.

    So when's David Milliband going to be PM?

  • Comment number 5.

    4 - Mistress76uk

    Not in our lifetime. Leader of the Labour Party - maybe.

    By the way, what is "managed decline"? If it means hanging on until 2010 before imploding, wouldn't "clutching at straws" be more appropriate?

  • Comment number 6.

    Carry on Gordon will be playing on UK TVs and Cinemas for the next two years. Oh dear.

  • Comment number 7.

    Perceptive and insightful stuff from Paul Mason - who is surely in the wrong job as economics editor. Where are you Stephanie? Evan?

  • Comment number 8.

    4 - Mistress76uk

    I really don’t think that the British public will stand for having yet another Prime Minister foisted upon them by this failing government. This would make three Prime Ministers in a little over two years. It begins to resemble a ‘tin pot’ dictatorship. Zimbabwe’s ‘would be President’ Robert Mugabe encapsulated Gordon Brown’s position when Mr Mugabe was accused of assuming power although no one had voted for him when he said that he was in exactly the same position as Mr Brown. He was right of course.

    If the Labour Party want another new leader they should have the guts to call a General Election to ask their bosses, us, the public, who WE want to be Prime Minister. If we think Labour has got everything right, they will be returned to power with a legitimate leader and Prime Minister, but if the public think that Labour has had long enough to get it right, we will vote for someone else.

    Will they have the guts to gamble on us? I doubt it. Personally, one thing is certain, I will NOT recognise or tolerate yet another ‘Prime Minister’ forced, unelected, onto the British public!

  • Comment number 9.

    #8 - dewarfinch

    Where has this idea that the people may choose their prime minister come from?

    There is not and never has been a mechanism for the electorate to directly choose the PM. The membership of the Commons is elected and the leader of the party which is able to form a government is by convention invited to do so.

    If there is an appetite in the UK for a directly accountable PM, that is another matter but it calls for a fundamental change in the machinery and a move towards a presidential style of government - a presidential style for which Blair was widely criticised.

    If you want rid of Mr. Brown, there are two realistic options. You either have to persuade 70 plus Labour MPs to rebel - but bear in mind that the Labour party, not the electorate, will choose his successor, or you have somehow to engineer a motion of no confidence which will trigger a general election. But again, that will not empower the people to directly elect the PM.

    Questioning Mr. Brown's democratic credentials is not helpful. You may not like the man, you may not like the system which put him in office, but the mechanism which put him in Downing Street was wholly legitimate.

  • Comment number 10.

    #9 threnodio

    As usual, you make good points.

    Why is the best analysis of UK politics produced by the Economics Editor?

    Others should be looking to their laurels!

  • Comment number 11.

    Because, oldnat, the usual suspects on the 'other' blog are busy having fun, joking around with dodgy poems and muddying the waters generally. In fairness, we have both been tempted to join in from time to time.

    I just wish that, once in a while, they would take a reality check and make sure of their facts.

  • Comment number 12.

    re: 11

    You cheeky monkey!

  • Comment number 13.

    And then - lo and behold - I fall into my own trap! How embarrassing is that?

  • Comment number 14.

    I have been sharply critical of Paul Mason in the past (not on here) but this is one of the best blog postings I have seen on the BBC ever.

    Thoughtful and full of genuine insight.

    What does it say about us as a nation when the governing party is planning in such a way? The fight seems to have gone out of them.

    I have no time for the Labour Party has it has now become. I used to respect people for their principles. But, as this piece and many others show, there are no real principled politicians left at the helm.

  • Comment number 15.

    Threnodio - Barrie's poems are rather good! Just have a look at his latest one on Obama :-)

  • Comment number 16.

    THANKS 76

    My ULTIMATE refuge is humour - I see it as the antidote to being human. When not taking refuge, I am deadly serious in wanting to SPOIL PARTY GAMES. I am coming to the opinion that if we accentuate the 'mock' and 'crass' in Britain's fake de-mock-crass-y, using suitable media vehicles, more may come to question Y we should continue to put up with it. I could make the point that this approach would DEflate the overblown egos of politicians . . .

  • Comment number 17.


    David Milliband was not even first choice for his constituency but was foisted upon South Shields by Tony Blair, causing some Labour activists to resign.

  • Comment number 18.

    5 - thredonio

    "wouldn't "clutching at straws" be more appropriate?"

    Clutching at Straw seems to be their only plan just now!

    Being an idealistic sort, I'd like to see both major parties collapse in on themselves, and reappear as genuine alternatives on the milder left and right of the political spectrum, each with an actual core of beliefs. That way, I could have a clue what they stand for, and how they would go about doing it, from their manifesto come election time. Probably too late, but that might also go some way towards reviving interest in the political system, rather than the current drift into single issue or closed interest group 'politics'.

    I can see why 'managed decline' is the option of choice now - after all, if you don't know what you actually believe in, it's going to be hard to raise enough enthusiasm to fight for it, so settle for a slow and comfortable decline...

  • Comment number 19.

    'managed decline' -

    I'd settle for a careful Management of the Books - or rather a balanced interpretation of fairness to all, don't try to get blood out of a stone, build up the Nations resources, a little more wisdom rather than more 'party politics. Stop this endless trivialisation of events, issues, personalities in an intellectually 'tabloid' and juvenile manner.

    We are writing, or speaking, endless 'drivel' in the negative, as to where we actually are; [which none of us can be certain, until we see figures in hindsight.] However we need forward planning; ie, as in realising we would need greater gas storage facilities, as early as the nineties. Perhaps the Industry Professionals had a duty to alert us all, to this one; or did the 'Press', 'cap' these details as being of little interest in the daily News run, garbage-in, garbage-out! When the individual runs out of 'credit', they need to put money into the account. Have WE run out in the credit department? The way people are talking one might think so! Perhaps, homeowners need recall their so called wealth was an exaggeration, well above the value of bricks and mortar of which it was made; monthly escalating on the scarcity roundabout, which the Government, and the Bankers colluded over. It was obvious for years we were not even building homes enough for our children, or the poor, who were 'robbed', due to the top slicing of the US mortgage market and consequent repossession. It had got out of control. The figures did not match and couldn't be covered or balanced anymore. Shrinkage is the only answer, and restock.

    We need to earn our money! We should only borrow to invest, repair, create capital investment; not borrow to promote impossible causes left over from the 'sermon on the mount', ie, an end to poverty, which by definition cannot be ended, stymied, stopped. As it says in the 'good' book - "the poor are always with us."

    Who cannot agree! - Brown isn't so far appropriate as the leader. But this should be remembered! Britain is supposed to be run through Cabinet Government - although most of those don't seem to be more than first year undergraduates, except Miliband, who has always struck me as having the gravitas of a sixth former. Ernest - without knowing; parroting without pentamiter.

    Nevertheless, Brown does have knowledge of how the economy functions, and no one else seems to have even his grip. His talents are not before the camera - he should be shielded from repetition of banalities and pointless ambitions of inappropriate religious nature. In his Bank Manager role he may still be of some use. The commentators need also to treat him with more respect, not copy the idiom of the political opposition, who have their own role, albeit they might be more collegiate.

  • Comment number 20.


    A TV series of yester-year, that had Bert Kwouk 'doing a homily' at the end of each episode. On one occasion Bert informed us that the defeated Kao Chiu (bad guy) KNOWS he must retreat BUT DOES NOT YET UNDERSTAND WHY.

    I think there is a great deal of KNOWING (cleverness) in politics but a severe shortage of UNDERSTANDING (wisdom). Worse: I suspect the political mind has lost all cognizance of the difference. That would be my assessment of Brown. We endow him with skills appropriate to managing 60 million lives, at our peril.
    Party politics is inimical to wisdom in its adherents. SPOIL PARTY GAMES.


More from this blog...

Latest contributors


Sign in

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.