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Gordon: L'etat c'est moi... (aussi Harriet)

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Paul Mason | 17:20 UK time, Monday, 11 January 2010

The biggest split in the Labour Party is now not between left and right, Blairite or Brownite. It is between a generation of politicians who still think they can win the election and those who - thinking beyond election day - wonder whether they can prevent the party itself from falling apart thereafter and allowing the Conservatives to be in power for a decade.

Though there is nothing concrete yet, this is the shared agenda of people like James Purnell, writing in the Guardian, Jon Cruddas, the centre-left backbencher, and Ed Miliband, setting out his own stall in the Observer.

What has happened since the non-event of last Wednesday is significant, and has begun to focus a lot of minds inside Labour. I've spoken to half a dozen insiders in the past couple of days and concluded as follows.

First, Gordon Brown has won the war to stay leader but lost control of the policy. That is a widespread feeling on the Labour backbenches and in government.

Harriet Harman, Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson each wanted something slightly different, but what they agreed on was that an "investment not cuts" line going into the election was not sustainable. Also that 10 Downing Street's operation was "dysfunctional" and that control should pass - under the guise of election planning - to a wider group of Cabinet ministers, including themselves.

The political substance of this is primarily economic. Labour will now go back on track, as it did after the June coup attempt against Brown, trying to spell out big spending cuts, privatisations and welfare reform. It will also abandon the class war rhetoric Brown began in the run up to the PBR in favour of the new buzzword: "aspiration".

This is more than mere to-ing and fro-ing between Brownite and Blairite rhetoric.

I am told even many on the centre left did not trust the PM to be able to deliver a rhetorical swing to the left without it becoming a core vote strategy. Most voices on the Labour centre left still speak of "rebuilding the coalition" with the progressive middle class, and are not emotionally attracted to a cloth-cap, core-vote strategy.

Anyway, the tangible outcome is a change of control over policy and the beginnings of a much higher degree of transparency over the cuts agenda. And next comes the backlash phase.

Labour's grass roots are beginning to feel very nervous about what this new "aspiration + tough cuts" rhetoric might mean. The trade unions had come up with a whole list of policies they wanted in the manifesto. They are now feeling very nervous about whether any of their agenda will get into the manifesto. More than one general secretary has been heard to say that if there are cuts and privatisations as a result of Alistair Darling seizing control over fiscal policy back from Brown and Balls, then they simply cannot persuade their members to fund the election campaign.

I am told the key issue is going to be rights for agency workers. Britain has a derogation from the EU rule that says agency workers have rights from day one of their employment, because there is an informal agreement between the government, CBI and TUC. Some union leaders are now musing on the prospect of pulling the plug on that agreement, triggering the immediate application of full EU law.

Ordinarily, the mainstream political discourse in Britain tends to treat unions, and still more so the non-Labour left, as an irrelevance. However both these forces are highly relevant to the current crisis Labour is going through.

In the first place, there is going to be an election for the leadership of the Unite union - Britain's biggest and the biggest Labour donor. This is mired in factionalism and there is the possibility, as one union official put it to me, that the battle becomes one between the left and the centre-left.

The possibility of the left winning in Unite seems to be bigger in the minds of their opponents than themselves, but these worries are just a cipher for the bigger issue that Labour is going to struggle to take its grass roots organisations in the direction it has just decided to travel.

The bigger picture? It is front of mind for some of the key Labour backbenchers who fear they will have to pick up the pieces in summer - and from all wings of the party - that Britain may be convulsed by social unrest as a result of the scale of the cuts the next government has to make.

In that scenario the nightmare is not a Labour swing to the left, it is the loss of any traction or activist base that connects all these deep-thinking, younger Labour politicians to the people at grass-roots level.

They are waking up, says one backbencher, to the fact they have no activist base in any social movement: not the unions, not the environmental campaigns. James Purnell's article touches on this with regard to the vibrant and highly influential London Citizens group. How did it end up, he muses, that this mass, multi-ethnic, heavily religious and avowedly non-socialist activist group ended up outside the orbit of the Labour movement. Bearing in mind that London Citizens springs from exactly the same sources as the movement that produced Barack Obama, it is a question I think this new generation of Labour politicians will keep returning to.

What you have the beginnings of this week are two forms of scrambling in the Labour Party. At the top, scrambling over how to put together a manifesto that recognises the reality of cuts, asset sales etc, and a pre-election budget that reflects this new consensus about "aspiration" rather than class war.

Then you have in quick succession Ed Miliband (Observer), Jon Cruddas (New Statesman) and James Purnell (Guardian) scrambling in quick succession to lay out their political stalls in thinkpieces about policy and strategy.

Behind it all there is profound nervousness about what the party "machine" will look like if Labour ends up out of power - and about how effective machines like the Trade Union Co-ordinating Group or the Labour Representation Committee will be in that situation.

It must be weird to have a red dispatch box in your hand and still be worrying about Joe Marino and the Bakers' Union, but for Labour ministers right now, that's life.


  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Paul

    I declare an interest as a member of Labour's NEC, and a former member of an RC parish in North London affiliated to TELCO, now London Citizens. Charmingly seductive as James Purnell's musings might appear, London Citizens is (in my experience), like the PoWER Commission, 'anti-political parties'. The staff of those organisations depend on an ability to raise money to keep themselves employed, not recruit people to join mainstream political parties.

    You might be interested in the on-going City of London Labour Party's London Living Wage campaign. We were delivering leaflets and lobbying our Common Councillors over a year before London Citizens' event at the Barbican in November 2009. The issue was first taken up by the Corporations's Establishment Committee in November 2008. The issue was No.1 on our Pledge Card for the Common Council Elections in March 2009. Low Paid casual staff at the Barbican Centre are now enjoying a significant pay increase thanks to negotiations by the GMB union, and Labour in the City embarrassing our so-called 'independent' elected representatives. Our aim remains to get the Corporation to become a London Living Wage Employer.

    But which broadcaster is free to report a local political party campaign?

  • Comment number 2.

    Frankly Paul, I think you would glean more information talking to psychologists than to insiders within the Labour Party.

    'Control Freaks' are control freaks are control freaks. Their very nature is such that they are unlikely to even admit it to themselves, let alone to anyone else, that they have such a personality disorder. For a personality disorder it is and they seldom, if ever, change. Only when cornered, and in danger of being exposed or found out, or desperate do they pretend to give in, do they pretend to change but the change is often only temporary.

    Of course, I am not talking about any particular politician here - I am speaking hypothetically - but, from a psychological point of view, it is truly fascinating at the moment observing the run-up to the coming election.

    For some reason I am reminded of 'The West Wing' when President Bartlett began to fall apart and needed the help of a shrink. Of course, he didn't think he did and, even when all around him knew that he needed help, he refused to believe them right up until the moment when the shrink sat down in the chair opposite him.

    It is easy to destroy people when they are failing, lost and need help.

    It is much harder to reach out with a genuine helping hand.

    That could be so true of so many in British politics this week.

  • Comment number 3.

    Who says an investment v cuts is not a sustainable basis for an election campaign. If Labour adopt a we can cut more or better than the Tories there will be few activists to work the reluctant electorate. Should the cutters get their way and , miracle, Labour is elected implementing widespread cuts and privatisations (ie degrading public sector terms and conditions) would quickly destroy a Labour Government who would not have much of a majority if any at all - discontent for all seasons!
    Cameron has made a major error is taking a strident line on cutting public expenditure and alienating many floating discontents who depend on or work in the public sector.
    Leadership, strategy and promoting core Labour values are the terminal failures of the Brown premiership. It is core values not the "core vote" Labour should concern itself with.
    Just when you thought the LD's might have something Clegg spoils it. What will become of those of us who want a fairer and more equal society now?

  • Comment number 4.

    in the same way they had no nation building model for iraq they don't have one for the uk. policies depend upon having such a model. the taliban or maoist has no problem with policy. they know exactly what they will do and who for.

    so the exposure is that modern politics does not have a model as their starting point. playing headlines is not 'a nation building' model.

  • Comment number 5.


    ''What will become of those of us who want a fairer and more equal society now?''

    There is nowhere to go, hence a campaign to get 'abstention' put on the on the ballot paper as a political option to put a cross in to formally register a vote of no confidence in the current system.

    We already have 40 people signed up..only 999,960 to go before we get a 10 second slot 3/4 of the way through the news.

    Alternatively those 40 people all strip naked and bare thier bottoms in parliament square in the direction of big ben in a co-ordinated which case we will make all the headlines....and get a million hits within a week.


    What a funny world we live in now isnt it!

    Or at least it would be funny if it were not so nasty with it, it was interested in the BBC story on paying mortgages by credit card, this one looks right up your street Paul to do some digging into the legalities of this and the practises of financial institutions aka vampire squids

    ''Up to one million households have borrowed money on a credit card to pay their mortgage or rent over the past year, a charity's study suggests''

    ''Citizens Advice found that since 2000 there had been a 722% rise in the number of charging order applications by unsecured creditors.''

    A high interest rate on an unsecured loan and the threat of repossetion, there is something that should not be legal about that..but aparently is legal...

    Heads I win, tails you lose with 20% interest rate with base rate sat at 0.5% should not be part of the finacial architecture of a fair society.

    No doubt the law lords would find in favour of the banks if there is any class action against them based on a 'point of law', which seems to be aterm oft used now which really means.

    'Your not clever enough to understand you are being sucked dry so shut up and let us do what we want and keep our mates at the gentlemans club happy'

    What is a 'point of law' anyway... surely the 'point of law' is to serve the people, not be used as a intellectual superiority stick to beat the population over the head with.

    Off post rant over.

    I will not be around for a while.

  • Comment number 6.

    So the Left have lost the taxpayer funded lollipop that justified their existence. I am not surprised: this is the nightmare I envisaged thirty years ago. Like Provisional Sinn Fein before the hunger strikes they refused to listen so what do I care. I have had enough of the postures and the posing. They are all fools and deserve what is to happen to them. To hell with them all.

    Only where does this leave us the people of this country? Well, have you not felt the frisson of the last few days? People clearing playgrounds of snow so that the children can get back to school, people clearing roads and footpaths so that all may get about in the wintry conditions, people being people once more and no longer the victims of an irrational system that forces roles upon them.

    We don't need politicians of either left or right: all we need is their power and we own that as our birthright. Stuff them all: take control! As far as this country is concerned we are the people: there is no other.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think you were closer to reality in reviewing Jerusalem

    You obviously spend too much time in the village and not emough seeing where people are at, and I dont mean parachute jobs.

    NONE of this bears any relation to people's real lives, however you slice up the Labour Party cake.

    They could not be further from what people expect from a government - a group of people committed to doing their best for the people of the country. Simple.

    But this would be a very novel, and foreign, idea to any of the people you have mentioned.

    Things have to get cataclysmic, apocalyptic, for Labour to look up. Is this possible before the election?? Only if anything can happen. And if someone does something drastic with the people hanging onto power in there now.

    But every bit of patching up and pretending that happens works against and delays this sine qua non cathartic change. So dont celebrate them. Otherwise it will just be non.

  • Comment number 8.

    Could it be that the 'Blairite glue' that has held New Labour together has finally worn off?

    And after all - How the heck did Blair manage it?

    No one is happy now it seems - the 'big lie' that was New Labour is nearly over!

  • Comment number 9.

    In 1978 Labour faced an economic crisis of rampant inflation and wage control. Strong unions and collective bargaining and the social contract. Today, its the deficit and the banking crisis. But, it is now an uneasy society. Although not polarised by an over-powerful trade union movement we have an economy and significant proportion of workers dependent on government consumption and a concentration of wealth in a relatively small section of society. The recipe for societal division is there.

  • Comment number 10.

    at least now we can clearly see the positions - who are the centre-right holding the cuckoo-court in NuLabour, and that the Left is *finally* mobilising behind a strong social-justice message - and hopefully Leader.

    how can Gordon - and Lord Meddlesome (i've heard his enemies are calling him "Meddley"... :) ) justify to themselves destroying the entire Labour Movement for their own selfish desire for power?

  • Comment number 11.


    My conclusion is that any team of MEN embodies that 'Animal Farm' equality quality. In the final analysis, they are all out to be topp. Co-operation is a means to individualist ends.

    Nowhere is this more apparent than in politics - for those who have eyes to see. However, if the 'Dave poster' is anything to go by, the entire country - proles and meeja alike - have either not noticed it displays an 'avatar' or else, if the have noticed, the IMPORT just does not register. We do seem to be in 'The Last Days'. Stay away from graveyards.

  • Comment number 12.

    I've come to the conclusion that the Hewitt and Hoon activity occurred to get the change of message and sort out the campaign team.
    Given the level of overspend the public sector currently has I'm surprised anyone thinks not talking about cuts is a goer.
    It's the graph on the right that means there have to be cuts - the pink dots is the important line.
    We've borrowed over 10% of GDP for non-exceptional Public Sector spend.
    Admittedly GDP has fallen some 6% ( but that can only account for half the rise.

    Comparing the movement in Public and Private sector employment since the start of the recession. (These are adjusted for 220k odd bankers who became public sector works when we essentially took over Lloyds and RBS who I've taken out the public sector and put back in the private sector - oh, if only).
    2008Q1 Private Sector 23.7m employeed, 2009Q3 it's now 23.0m (0.69m jobs lost - it'd index at 0.97).
    2008Q1 Public Sector 5.76m employeed, 2009Q3 it's now 5.87m (0.11m jobs created - it'd index at 1.02).

    Public sector wages haven't been impacted in the same way as private sector
    The second paragraph - public sector wages are rising at twice the rate of the private sector.

    The public sector hasn't really felt the pain in this recession - in fact it's been picking up the slack (well bits of it have - it may be that councils have had to keep it tight whilst central functions haven't). The private sector is not going to pick up quick enough to right the imbalance by improving GDP, so there is no option but to cut public sector spend, and unfortunately that probably means job cuts.

  • Comment number 13.

    #11 barriesingleton

    Is this a call for all male politicians to be neutered? I thought that was mandatory already?

  • Comment number 14.


    In the last minutes before lunch, they asked Campbell about '45 minutes'.
    Ex-media man Alastair, stated he did not see the 45 minute claim as anyting special, and (by inference) had NO IDEA it would make the headlines. HE WAS NOT ASKED IF ANYONE THOUGHT OF ISSUING A CORRECTION, TO THE PRESS! (Perhaps like the correctional tirade Alastair Campbell delivered to Channel 4, regarding Gilligan's 'falsehoods'.

    Ah - Martha has just declared Campbell did not lose his temper. Really? So he must have got out his pram (as I watched) to go for a pee then.

    At one point Campbell said he would never criticise Scarlet 'for whom he has a huge regard'. Duly noted . . .

  • Comment number 15.

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


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