Labour’s Deep Crisis and Brown’s Road to Brighton Pier
The Scotsman, September 28th 2009
The Labour Party meet this week in a strange mood, partly nervous of what is to come, but realising they have closed off nearly every possible escape route. It is some ways like the gathering of a collective death cult, amazed that despite everything they are still alive!
Gordon Brown, touring the TV studios undertaking his latest ‘fight-back’, was interviewed by Andrew Marr – live on Sunday morning. Two great Scots locking horns. In between them, on Brighton seafront, could be seen the shimmering wreckage of the West Pier, destroyed by fire a few years ago.
It has a lot in common with Brown. Both are burned out but still standing, with a certain air of magnificence and obstinancy that it is hard not to admire. Both are wrecked, disconsolate and haunted by ghosts, getting in the way of future plans. But despite everything, still there.
Just as Brighton Pier is a metaphor for the idiocies of development wrangles, Brown’s predicament is a distraction from the fact that the problems Labour faces are not about one man and his undoubted limitations. Instead, they are about the whole rotten relic of the good ship Labour and what remains of its lifeforce, namely, tribalism.
The crisis of Labour isn’t just about Brown, and the dilution of the party’s overarching credo. When Gordon was a lad the party was filled with heady talk of ‘socialism’ and ‘the commanding heights’. Then it became ‘social democratic’ and embraced the albeit-regulated market. Now it isn’t even that but has become ‘progressive’, a vague, meaningless term which is so bereft of an anchor that the party finds itself in competition with Cameron and Osborne for the term.
The crisis is about more than that and the Blairite-lite Conservatives. It is about more than what comes after Blair and Brown and New Labour. Or what comes after ‘modernisation’ – a word that means nothing and at the same time conceals a narrow dogmatic view of the world.
It is about the nature of our political class, the state and the state of our politics. In short, people feel powerless in the face of the globalisation mantra trundled out by politicians and business, and the reality of the corporate takeover of large parts of our lives. Brown might now reflect that his mistake was not to preside over more regulation and propose to outlaw bankers’ bonuses, but it is all a bit late when for the last decade you have been preaching flexibility and deregulation.
Commentators are obsessed with whether Brown is up or down this week, gossiping about his health, and even as bad, gossiping about the gossip. They debate whether the leader’s big speech can turn things round. They focus on those set pieces such as Brown’s fighting talk in his interview with Andrew Marr on the BBC. And yet, they really don’t get the crisis of our politics and institutions and the anger out there.
I have a sense that somehow the liberal centre-left commentariat (Marr, Toynbee et al) get this less than those not of this disposition. And I think this has to do with their confusion that no matter how much they find so much of what this government has done repugnant – the wars, ID cards, war on anti-social behaviour – they feel there is still an intrinsic set of ‘good news stories’ at the heart of this lot.
If the argument goes, if the government would only proclaim the merits of the war on poverty, rather than the war on terror, sing the charms of SureStart from every rooftop, and talk about proportional representation. It wasn’t going to happen in the honeymoon years, so it sure ain’t going to occur in its fag end!
Daniel Finkelstein, once an adviser to William Hague, recently observed that political parties are about ‘feeling’. ‘Voters support parties because of how they make them feel about themselves’, he argues, and Labour haven’t made people feel good for a very long time.
What have the party to show for three election victories and a decade in power? Beyond the shopping list of their usual achievements trundled out, the depressing truth is that Labour, along with the Tories and Lib Dems, have long lost their traditional moorings and no longer represent what they used to – or indeed us.
All the rest, this week, and next week at the Conservatives is really camouflage and attempts to conceal this basic truth from voters.