UK Politics

Is there a quick fix for next Labour leader?

Labour leadership contenders
Image caption What tack will Labour's next leader take?

The Labour Party is choosing its new leader. The winner will be announced at the party's conference. But will she - or, more likely, he - ever become prime minister?

When Labour last lost power, it was to a government committed to balancing the nation's books, just as the coalition is today.

Many thought its period in opposition would be short-lived.

In fact, it took four more leadership elections and four more general elections before Labour was back in office.

So can the party in 2010 avoid repeating the mistakes made after 1979? As Lord Hattersley, a cabinet minister in the 1970s, observes, there is one obvious difference: "We were hideously divided. We were encumbered by the cuckoos in our nest."

'No enemy within'

Yet the lack of current conflict in the party has a downside. Most expected defeat this year. They are comforted that the Conservatives failed to win outright, and Labour has only 48 seats fewer seats than the Tories.

Some fear that a dangerous complacency is setting in, though.

Sally, now Baroness, Morgan says: "Because in a way there isn't an enemy within the party, it is therefore actually more difficult and in some ways more dangerous because I think there is a real danger that we'll move back to a more emotional party and revert to 'let's just oppose everything the coalition does'."

Image caption Lord Hattersley says he regrets backing Tony Blair

Baroness Morgan worked for Tony Blair in opposition and in Downing Street for 10 years, but her's is not just the view of Blairities.

Backbench MP Jon Cruddas, pin-up boy of the centre left, says some in the party have failed to realise that May's general election result was "quite close to cataclysmic for Labour".

He describes Mr Blair as the equivalent of jazz musician Miles Davies, brilliant but ultimately destructive. He and Gordon Brown were playing the same New Labour theme, but discordant notes littered their relationship.

Lord Hattersley is blunt: "I supported Tony Blair. I now think that was a mistake. Had Gordon Brown become prime minister when Tony Blair did, I think we would have had a genuine Labour government and things would have turned out very much better."

But former Home Secretary David Blunkett thinks Mr Brown disappointed: "It's a mystery, the time that Gordon Brown had to prepare, and the space. Where was the alternative programme? And we waited for it, and we waited for it."

Lord Prescott, who as deputy prime minister refereed many bouts of in-fighting, says whoever wins must learn the lessons of the recent past: "I hope in this new leadership election we don't get a repeat of it."

Partisans of the Miliband brothers, in particular, take note.

It would be a mistake, though, to suggest that, but for the "TB-GBs", as they were known, Labour would still be in power.

'Spinning on the spot'

The seeds of defeat, it is argued, were sown in government, notably over policy. Here, tensions were never truly resolved.

The Militant left is a thing of the past; but there's a big gap between those like Baroness Morgan who think Labour should have gone further in reforming the public sector - more choice and competition - and those like Lord Prescott who argue that Labour should remain unashamedly the party of the state.

Unable to resolve these differences, says the former leader Lord Kinnock, the Labour government was reduced to "spinning on the spot".

The voters noticed. Deborah Mattinson, who conducted focus groups and opinion polls under leaders from Kinnock to Brown, says Labour stopped addressing what she calls "the squeezed middle"; not simply the fabled Middle England voters of New Labour yore, but those who felt their aspirations were being crushed.

Two issues in particular were inadequately addressed: housing and immigration.

Those may be subjects Labour's new leader can address. But before that, according to Ms Mattinson, there is a more fundamental problem none of the leadership contenders appears to have recognised.

Chancellor George Osborne's accusation that Labour failed to mend the roof when the sun was shining, made when he was shadow chancellor, appears to have stuck.

In Ms Mattinson's view, despite Mr Blair and Mr Brown's obsession with burying Labour's reputation for economic incompetence, the party is back where it was in the early 1980s - distrusted by the voters on the most importance issue of all.

Which may be why the former MP Brian Gould, a veteran of those barren opposition years, predicts that the "next Labour leader won't be prime minister".

Labour Saving Devices is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 7 September at 2000 BST, and repeated on Sunday 12 September at 1700 BST. Or listen again for up to seven days after broadcast on BBC iPlayer

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