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My take on seven days of Labour crisis

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Paul Mason | 22:03 UK time, Monday, 8 June 2009

Here's my take on Labour's election disaster and a balance sheet of a tumultuous crisis, which for now seems to have abated. It is based on many conversations with ministerial aides, backbench MPs and trade union officials over the past week.

1) All last week Labour and trade union people were discussing how an Alan Johnson premiership could a) do a Michael Howard and lessen the impact of the coming election defeat and b) unify the party until it limps into opposition, where the ideological debate would start in earnest.

2) Once the coup failed and a proxy war broke out between Blairites and Brownites, the rationale for "AJ" as the plotters call Alan Johnson, fell apart. The centre left - which it is worth remembering "won" the first round of the 2007 deputy leadership contest - saw no point in joining an uprising that was going to put Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn etc into a position of greater power. See Labour blogger Hopi Sen for more.

3) The AJ project always intended to allow Labour to go on doing what it is already committed to, only "better" and more sympathetically, without some of the perceived dysfunction of the Brown administration. It would also allow greater closure on the issues of Iraq and the misregulation of the banking system. The European parliament election result throws into question whether that is still possible.

4) The majority of those who voted have voted for parties that reject the Lisbon Treaty, reject Eurofederalism and want a much tougher policy on immigration. These are issues that the inner Labour factional struggle does not seem even to engage with: Labour's policy document, "Winning the Fight For Britain's Future" - currently being honed by Ed Miliband into an election manifesto - barely acknowledges the anger and disenchantment shown last Thursday.

5) Labour knew in advance how big the BNP threat was but had no effective strategy to counter it. I spent the Summer of 2007 touring Britain on the trail of Gordon Brown and constantly reported on the following: many in Labour's core constituency of white, English, low-paid manual workers believe the party has deserted them; that migration - above all legal migration from Eastern Europe - has undercut their wages and placed strains on their services. And they feel threatened about their identity.

Last year, when I followed David Cameron to Nuneaton, where the Conservatives won the council, I met former miners who had not voted "because the BNP weren't standing". In Thurrock I heard tales of hundreds of people in council elections writing in "BNP" where the party was not standing. Labour was, in short, fully appraised of the threat from the BNP. The party's strategists now have to explain how and why they failed to deal with it.

6) Today there is dismay in Labour circles because all the options open to them seem futile. We are hearing that Brown gave a "moving", "heartfelt" etc speech at the PLP, promising to change, listen etc. This on its own cannot have been enough to produce such a flood of support (or postponement of assassination). So we have to assume there have been concrete policy changes promised in the background.

7) Weirdly, amid it all, it is beginning to look like by default, both in makeup and possibly now in policy the government has moved slightly "left" - or a version of left. First there is the "lines to take" that ministers have been coming out with: "the Conservatives will cut public services" ("we, by inferrence, will not"). This is one big expectation to be stoking up given the state of the public finances.

Second there is the makeup of the refuseniks. What unites Purnell, Clarke, Milburn, Blears et al is that they were "small-state Blairites". Thinking back to Charles Clarke's speech in 2007 about the crossroads facing Labour: to go further down a "Fabian" - ie statist - line, or towards a social programme based on charity and social entrepreneurs... I think it's this latter position that defines the ministerial refuseniks.

That programme - "communitarian Blairism", you could call it, or Third Way 2.0 - is now hardly represented at all in Cabinet. The remaining Blairites have two general characteristics: a) they are statists b) they have a strong relationship with the Labour movement and its history. Indeed maybe we're seeing the emergence of "Mandelsonism".

8) All this, plus the election result, dictates the line of march a "reformed" Brown government will be pushed to take. If you take John McDonnell and Jon Cruddas' respective wish lists, cancelling Post Office privatisation seems a done deal; cancelling Trident will be the big one to swallow - although I know from experience that Brown's commitment to it was a sold as a tactic designed to gain Blair's agreement to stand down.

(The one and only time Damian McBride ever phoned me out of the blue was to tell me "Gordon has committed to Trident". I'd been asking him about water privatisation at the time.) We'll see.

Building a mass of new public housing? Failure to commit was the sticking point which led Cruddas to turn down a ministerial position last year. Then there is subsidy for short time working: this seems to be popping up in the wish list of a lot of Brown's new found left supporters so watch out for it. Since there is half a billion allocated to support for industry, and 220,000 people on short time working, the current budget would seem to cover a one-off payment of roughly £2 each - excuse the bad maths: it's £2,000, as commenter inoncom points out below.

9) The PLP left and centre left have put Brown "on probation until the Autumn". Meanwhile the "radical centre" has detached itself from cabinet and is in a far more volatile mood. The PLP meeting seals the end of the period where it was possible that the "disparate" rebels - Barry Sheerman et al - could mount any kind of effective coup.

I understand the last remnant of a Johnson "machine" was definitively stood down this afternoon. So there will now be a phoney war within the Labour party until the conference. Highly unclear whether that will do anything to reconnect them to the masses of voters who stayed away, let alone endear them to last night's electoral majority who want out of Lisbon. Since the "centre right" in Britain is now so clearly defined around these issues, the whole point of the Blairite project - reaching out across the traditional divide - gets a lot harder.

10) That's my provisional analysis. It could all change quickly. The next major gambit or decision Gordon Brown makes will be seen as a test of the commitments he made tonight. But first we have to find out what they are.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    thanks for a pretty picture of the usual kooky kremlinology.

    to the non expensed it just looks like they don't understand that the [effectively under eu law] unlimited migration is just as extremist an ideology as no migration and is seen as unjust. A migration unlinked to housing, services or any other sort of proportionality that is locking ordinary people out of work and services just as the enclosures locked them out of access to land.

    labour has lead the way in extremism. from market fundamentalism, to militant democracy to unlimited migration.

    further the public wish to remove the MP's because of the expenses regardless of what leader they have. that idea is the MP's blind spot. When comes the election they will just have to go over the topic and walk slowly towards the machine guns and plead for public mercy?

  • Comment number 2.

    I predict an SDP-style split with Byers, Clarke, etc. heading off to the Liberals or perhaps even Cameron's Tories.

    From Milburn writing in the Indy that progressives shouldn't be anti-capitalist to Purnell penning an article on a putative "egalitarian capitalism" my guess is that if Brown capitulates to public opinion on housing or public services, the Blairites will join with the Murdoch press in presenting this as some kind of "lurch to the left".

    The inability to deal with the BNP stems from New Labour's strategy of continuing the Thatcherite economic policies of the managed decline of manufacturing.

  • Comment number 3.

    That would be £2000, not £2. Which is enough to pay 50% of the lost wages for a worker on £20,000 (roughly the average national wage) who is working four instead of five days a week. Not that it's a good use of money, though.

    I guess political exigencies may be (as #2 hints) that this kind of short-term subsidy is needed to blunt the resentment of workers whose livelihoods are being eliminated. Not eliminated by the government, I hasten to add, but by straightforward progressive development of the economy. Still, that difference seems to be lost on some.

    In sum, what a depressing outlook. Two days ago I wrote a rather hopeful article about the direction of the government (http://www.knowingandmaking.com/2009/06/two-hidden-stories-which-could.html) but if Paul's right, then I was being much too optimistic. If this move leftwards really happens, Labour stands a good chance of throwing away the vestiges of the electoral success it's had since 1997.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    I stayed up last night to watch Newsnight to see if there might be any insights into how this weird Westminster politico-media bubble notion that things 'are so bad it's good for Gordon' came about.

    About the only thing seemed to be that 'there is no better alternative' Ah well, that's OK then. Carry on.
    Who cares about the country when there's a personality cult to serve.

    What did strike me was the compositions of interviewees. Fair enough to have two Labour MPs, as they were the guys at the meeting and indeed were critical... at least until having been reprogrammed. For the usual tick-box guff reasons to be cheerful we had Jack Straw.

    Ms. Kennedy at least was an articulate and telling critic with clear actions in support of her words. The ex-something Tory was straight from central casting. Are the corridors of power now really walked by such folk?

    But what got me was the choice of commentators. I was dreading the Kevin Maguire/Andrew Pierce tag team (just seen that on Breakfast - but, amazingly, followed, by Kate S dissecting Ben Bradshaw and his numptie notion that Nu-Listening Gordon is now stronger matters to anyone outside the Labour Party and some hacks) but no... we get Polly T from the Guardian and Andrew Rawnsley from the Observer.

    Now, I am sure it was late and no one else had an opinion or fancied national exposure, but might it not have been possible to get some other views than 'what 'we' must do is ignore Labour as a government of over a decade and make Gordon more popular, as the poor love is simply copping the flak for the expenses scandal. Ignore any views the public may have, and have expressed via their vote, on failing, unpopular policies from immigration to the EU'.

    7:20 AM, June 09, 2009

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm sure someone in the office does read this blog every so often, so I'll try again...

    Being these ended 3 days ago, is this from the home page still strictly necessary?:

    During the MEP and council polls, in line with political parties and other UK broadcasters, the BBC will not be reporting the election campaign or offering discussion about the campaign.

  • Comment number 7.

    Just watched the handsomely coiffed and stylishly groomed representative of the new Labour core movement, Tony Lloyd, doing the rounds of the studios. How I warmed to this engaging representative of the working wo/man.

    But then, the new plan. Seems that, after over a decade, the 'solution' - to clinging to power and a nice end of term bonus at least - would seem to be to reassess and improve the communication of the party's message. Or... a bunch more hype and spin in the offing.

    And the best man to be getting on with this job, as up to 15% of the voting public have expressed this wish, is... one Mr. Brown, so clearly keen and open to taking criticism and not being arrogant or telling porkies. Nifty.

    No real appreciation that a possible 85% of British voters have made their assessment on what the incumbents have actually done, still are doing and seem intent on continuing to do, and tried to make clear at the ballot box. The fools. Who gives a stuff what they think or want?

    Rotten system. Rotten inhabitants. And it all starts from the head.

  • Comment number 8.

    Junkkmale you really seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the way the political system works in this country, you would appear to be under the wild impression that individuals (usually with some party affiliation) put forth ideas and policies to the populace and who ever has the best/most appealing ideas and policies gets the most votes, they then represent the population and endevour to implement said ideas and polices, how ever the truth is that 646 people command the uneducated hordes irrespective of any desires that the uneducated may have, I mean how would 60 million people ever know anything.

  • Comment number 9.

    Brown stays ? Suprised ?

    The alternatives would have hastened a General Election.

    For Labour it appears that democracy is something to be forever deferred. A brief look at the constituents of the rehashed cabinet tells all - how many unelected executives does it take before we call it a politburo ?

    In the community at large the consensus appears to be firmly eurosceptic. So much so that the conservative election winners will foresake their natural French and German comrades and take their Brussells seats on the losers bench with an ad hoc selection of euro misfits.

    Ugly sideshows such as BNP can be avoided not by avoiding and deferring democracy, but by engaging more fully with it. Start with a referendum on Lisbon Treaty,then a General Election and maybe then Labour Party will find a new reason for being.



  • Comment number 10.

    #9 not only engage with democracy but with the voters as well. I know I am not the only person who saw representatives of the main parties posting leaflets through doors yet doing their up most to avoid actually listening to the voters yet the B.N.P. do the opposite, at the end of the day everybody wants to feel like somebody is listening even if that ear belongs to somebody who has recently escaped the asylum.

  • Comment number 11.

    8. At 09:15am on 09 Jun 2009, squidthing1976
    Junkkmale you really seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick..


    Ah, I stand re-educated, having got mine a tad before the latest surge to 'A*++alpha with bar and oak leaves' grades that has rendered my kids so high in self-esteem, but perhaps a tad hazy on a few other things that used to help with getting into interesting uni courses that lead to actual jobs that generated useful stuff and not just short-term bubble wealth.

  • Comment number 12.

    At the end of the seven days, is the country any better off ?

    No. All that has happened is that self-serving Labour MP's have found a way of hanging onto their seats a while longer.

    From the country's point of view, we're not really debating whether it is right to accumulate so much debt. Gordon's convinced it is, because it might turn things around in time for the election thus improving his chances of winning.

    But curing a debt problem by racking up even more debt and draining prudent peoples savings does not seem like the right long-term solution to me.

    And the longer that policy goes on, the harder it is going to be to put al the collateral damage right. Britain might even become Bankrupt. We've already heard that there is a query over the country's AAA rating...

    Labours 7 days of crisis has been patched up, but in the long-term it will destroy the UK...

  • Comment number 13.

    If Labour have moved/are moving to the left then at least this is a more honest position for them to take. The Nu Labour position which the Blairites adopted is just so hypocritical eg one school (the bog standard comp)for the hoi polloi and only the best for our own kids. At least old Labour wanted the same for all. Thank God most of the Blairites have now gone and good riddance. I don't usually support GB but he's gone up in my estimation by playing such a blinder. Far better to let them all "flounce off" and show themselves up for what they are than to sack them and by so doing let them be the victims. Perhaps his years in waiting have taught him some good political manoeuvres from his mentor TB after all. This will lead (I predict) to much stronger government since his hands won't be completely tied by the rest of the Cabinet.

  • Comment number 14.

    Not entirely unrelated to the above I came up with a phrase today to summarise why we are in the mess we are in which I am quite chuffed with so I thought I would unashamedly promote it on my favourite blogspace.

    If you think of the wealth gained from specialisation, technology and the efficiency that technology provides we should all be living much more balanced lives. Why is that not the case and what has been the human cost of that?

    The phrase is:

    'White collar crime against humanity'

    I think everything that is happening has its roots in that phrase.

    There should be more people like Bill gates and less people like William F Fuld Jnr. The financial power people like the failed boss of lehmans wields (and refuses to turn to something genuinly useful) is vastly in excess of the value they have provided to society.



    Jericoa

  • Comment number 15.

    I think the Jon Cruddas idea about Council homes should be given serious consideration, and here is why. For the last 10 years I have been a private tennant renting a one bedroom flat in Essex. When I moved onto the estate in 1999 you could buy these flats for between 28 and 35 thousand each, well within the limits of a person earning say 15,000 a year to buy with a mortgage of 3 times their salary. Over the last 10 years I have paid over 60,000 in rent, in other words nearly twice what it was worth back in 1999.

    Everyone I know who has bought a home as a first time buyer between 02 and 07 has a mortgage of between 6 and 9 times their salary, they can pay their mortgages, just about, but have none of the disposable income of the people who bought earlier. It follows that the main reason that home prices have risen so sharply in the past 10 years is mainly down to the mortgage lenders pushing mortgages of ever larger multiples of peoples salaries, and not the fact that building a home has gone up at anything like the same rate. At the same time the economy is suffering because there is a growing number of people who have no money to spend out in the high street on goods and services, because it goes straight out of their account and to the mortgage company.

    Lets say that today a flat that cost 35,000 to build 10 years ago would cost about 50,000 to build now, it could be rented out for 25 years and would pay for itself in the first 10 years, after renting it out for a further 15 years it could be offered for sale to the currant tennant for say 50,000, which in 25 years time would be quite affordable to someone wanting a cheap first step on the housing ladder.

    So if when the banks start paying back some of the taxpayers money and the government starts selling off its bank shares, if it was to put 100 billion of that money into a meaningfull social housing programme, over the following 25 years it would pay for itself and raise another 200 billion in clear profit. Thats 200 billion to the treasury without having to raise a penny in tax, or cut a penny from public spending. At the same time it provides affordable homes for people who can then go out and spend their money in the shops, or save for pensions or whatever. The cost of housing is still way to high for most people in this country, and even George Osbourne today admitted that in the future its not only going to be the business community that has got to learn to live on lower credit limits but its also you and me as well, so whoever you vote for, it seems to me that that we cannot go on with a high debt low income economy anymore and the case for social housing is a strong one.

  • Comment number 16.

    Best analysis I've read on this so far, by far. Thanks Paul.

  • Comment number 17.

    If we finally got an elected upper house, the only way to go, what happens to all the dross that's bought its way in, or got the favour for toadying?

    Execution?

  • Comment number 18.

    Congrats for recognising and stating these points:

    The majority of those who voted have voted for parties that reject the Lisbon Treaty, reject Eurofederalism and want a much tougher policy on immigration. These are issues that the inner Labour factional struggle does not seem even to engage with: Labour's policy document, "Winning the Fight For Britain's Future" - currently being honed by Ed Miliband into an election manifesto - barely acknowledges the anger and disenchantment shown last Thursday.

    I havent seen it articluted/admitted anywhere else.

  • Comment number 19.

    Sorry for not putting on a learned comment here, but just wanted to mention how amusing your lumberjack jeans and Tory jacket were on Newsnight last night! Less of the Kindleberger and Minsky economists (who were foisted upon me by my polytechnic leftwingers) and more of the sunlight please, Paul!

  • Comment number 20.

    Just a few points on all the anti-EU stuff here. Just because anti-EU/Lisbon parties appear to have won more votes last week does not translate to there being an overall desire to leave the EU. It just means, for whatever reason pro-EU voters saw no value in voting. The real story is the clear message of unpopularity sent out to Labour. The BNP vote is a cry for help from those who feel marginalised. Only the BNP engage with this white underclass. Whilst their solution is both distateful and just plain bonkers frankly, at least they engage with those who feel unwanted by the Expensed Classes at Westminster (both politicians and media).

    Fiddling with the voting system has not, I suggest, done a great deal to re-energise those who didn't vote because they feel left out of the current one. But then it's a bit hard to have a grown up debate with how we re-connect the excluded when it was Gordon Brown who uttered the immortal words "British jobs for British workers", not Nick Griffin. I've noted it elsewhere, but Griffin is not the first person to identify the white underclass as a phenomenon that needed addressing (or exploiting depending on your point of view). Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for the Equalities (or whatever it's now called), raised the issue a couple of years ago. Trevor is, of course, not qualified to join the BNP. Yet his analysis of the problems is very like the BNP's. He just would probably like to see some different solutions proposed. It won't be easy to counter the BNP's populist message given the obsession with trivia at Westminster. I would put electoral reform in this category right now. The middle of the worst economic crisis for at least 25 years, and probably 60, ought to be focussing debate on economic renewal, in particualr protection of society's weakest. Griffin and the BNP are doing this, and the Expensed Classes have simply left the entire debating arena and agenda to them. Very depressing. More depressing than the systematic thieving that's been going on at Westminster.

    A further point on EU membership/Lisbon etc. There seems to be a feeling in the UK that leaving the EU and being able to keep out all the undesirables from eastern Europe (which, of course, starts at Calais in most little Englander's eyes), would suddenly reverse the pressure on housing, healthcare, jobs etc. It might be worth keeping in mind that withdrawal from the EU would result in UK citizens in other EU states having to leave there and return to the UK. So, think of how ever many hundreds of thousands of Brits in Spain will all be on planes home, needing houses, wanting to be on doctors' lists, maybe even wanting jobs in some cases. There are definitely plenty more of us in countries such as Ireland (ie me!) who would be after jobs in the UK if we weren't working abroad. So the idea that EU withdrawal would be a one-way bet for Britain just is not true, I'm afraid. Again, we need the Expensed Classes to start articulating this stuff, and pointing out just some of the benefits of EU memberhsip, preferably in words we all understand rather than the legalistic dross of the Lisbon Treaty.

    Here's a few ideas. Do we want clearer, more informative food labelling? All the evidence is we do. Well the EU provided them, consistently, across the EU. Do people think they get ripped off by mobile phone providers when they call home off holiday? Yes? Well the EU has already forced them to cut once and is looking at them again. Yet, O2 and Vodafone get credit for cutting them not the EU. How about seeing big corporations punished for anti-competitive behaviour? Well there's the 1 billion Euro fine that Intel have just had from the EU. How about help with necessary infrastructure investment to assist in high unemployment areas? Well wasn't Manchester's tram system 50% funded by the EU?

    There is a ton of stuff to highlight, but the Expensed Classes just don't "do" small stuff like this. It doesn't involve a photoshoot of them all at a jolly somewhere nice, or the need for 25,000 police to keep them all safe. Nick Griffin & Co do "do the small stuff", and they got a deserved electoral reward for it, distateful though that may be for many of us.

  • Comment number 21.

    "In Thurrock I heard tales of hundreds of people in council elections writing in "BNP" where the party was not standing. Labour was, in short, fully appraised of the threat from the BNP. The party's strategists now have to explain how and why they failed to deal with it."

    Nobody takes New Labour seriously anymore because it isn't the Labour Party, it's not even a crypto-Conservative Party. By their actions they're anti-statists, i.e anarchists. Old Labour's policies back in 1945 were easy for the electorate to grasp and they could see the policies being implemented. Yes the USA didn't like it, and no doubt made it difficult, but Ahmadinejad was right in what he said about the USA at the SCO, they have committed demographic/economic suicide and Europe is not far behind. If people don't want more votes to go to the BNP, then the PLP needs to re-create Old Labour very quickly, and remember that 'workers' are everyone other than those who live off capital. If they want money to fund their project they'll have to somehow get a sub from the PRC. What we have in this country now is an overcomplicated, depresssing, disaster/nightmare of permanent revolution which just suits coke-heads and those who profit from economic anarchism/people's insecurities.

  • Comment number 22.

    #21 JadedJean, I agree with your sentement, it would be no bad thing for a bit more Old Labour these days. Unfortunatly thats about as likly as snow in June. The staple things a person needs to live should be as cheap as possible, that way people would have more money to spend in the High Street.

 

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