Labour's long weekend
It's turning into "Kick Gordon Day". What you are seeing on the airwaves (summarised here) from David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and Bob-Marshall Andrews is just the tip of an iceberg that is mainly composed of good old text messages as Labour folks go back to their constituencies for the long weekend, (which kicks off tonight with a resounding call by Harriet Harman for party unity).
Let me expand on what I am hearing about the situation: as reported on Newsnight last night, Alan Johnson and Jack Straw are being quietly canvassed to see if they are prepared to be caretaker leaders. But there is no enthusiasm coming from their bag-carriers, unlike last summer. The centre-left front-runner Jon Cruddas seems to have a strategy of concentrating on policy rather than party infighting. An interesting flag has been flown by former Newsnight journalist Allegra Stratton in the Guardian, for a Cruddas-Purnell ticket, but this would only make sense in a post-defeat situation.
All this you can glean from the political blogs but I will add my two-pennyworth of fairly well briefed observations, naming no sources. The big obstacle to any leadership challenge on Brown this year are the unions. Unlike a year ago, they now have something clearly to gain from the Labour government - above all the imminent bailout of Jaguar and the called-for rescue of LDV. The PM, via lieutenants in the PLP and the unions, has more or less shored-up the union movement, and some unions - especially Unite - feel they have actually moved government policy during the credit crunch.
However, fast-forward to the morning of 5 June and it may be a different story. The nightmare scenario Labour strategists fear is not a wipe out by the Conservatives or Libdems, but a drubbing in certain Labour heartlands by the BNP. That is the essence of the recent interventions by senior backbenchers Peter Hain and Ian Austin. Obviously, an election is an election and there is no predicting what will happen.
What is most telling at present, as somebody who has to speak to policy advisers, is the absence of debate or engagement by the rising generation of Labour politicians on the "Fourth Term Agenda". This was in full swing in the early summer of 08, if you remember: community politics, localism, social entrepreneurialism, a "Beveridge Mk2" etc. Though they were advancing different solutions, you saw politicians as diverse as Cruddas and Hazel Blears engage on this terrain.
Then, in the aftermath of Lehman Brothers, you saw the debate swing into the territory of crisis management. Huge actions by the state, dwarfing anything a left-wing think tank would have dreamt of, were decided in the space of 48 hours.
What many Labour thinkers assumed was that the party's policy agenda would now veer back towards centralising, top-down initiatives - for example the centre-left pushed hard for a fiscal stimulus until Mervyn King torpedoed the idea. There has certainly been a "feelgood" factor generated among Labour activists about the 50% tax rate: but it is overwhelmed by the fact that - because of the fiscal crisis revealed in Alistair Darling's Budget - the state will have to shrink, spending plans will be slashed, etc, for a generation.
Though much of the Labour angst aimed at Gordon Brown is fuelled by the recent run of missteps - Youtube, McBride, Gurkhas - I cannot help thinking some of it is "displacement anger" at the overall fiscal dilemma.
The essential deal at the heart of New Labour, and the Third Way in general, was to use tax receipts from a rip-roaring, deregulated financial sector to fund a quiet redistribution and longterm public spending increase. Now the tax take from the finance sector has collapsed, and the next generation is faced with a strategic rethink. The only comfort they can draw is that for reasons outlined well in this Economist article the Conservatives are also at a policy turning point.
In summary: above all because of the union stance, I predict there will be no leadership issue for Labour until the results of the June elections are known and even then it will probably take electoral catastrophe to change the balance of forces I've described here.