Why Gordon Brown should soldier on
I had been almost persuaded by the relentless drum-beat of Guardian editorials and columns that Gordon Brown is finished and should step down now, if only so as not to prolong the party’s and the country’s agony — well, embarrassment, if not agony. Almost persuaded, but not quite. Following recent traumatic events — the resignations, the largely involuntary reshuffle, the defiant press conference, the county council election results, the sure prospect of even worse to come in the European parliament elections — I have come to the reluctant conclusion that Gordon should stay on until a general election next year.
I say this out of absolutely no admiration for Brown’s style of government and politics. The widely reported briefing by the attack dogs working out of No. 10 Downing Street against fellow Labour parliamentarians, including ministers, is scandalous: loyalty should be a two-way street. The over-reliance for advice on a small coterie of personal and political cronies — Ed Balls prominently among them — is harmful and undemocratic, especially when the prime minister has a huge range of ministers, back-benchers, and above all experienced and savvy civil servants to sound out and listen to. He sticks doggedly to policies which are heartedly disliked by a large section of the party at the grass roots and probably even in parliament. He looks and sounds terrible on television and seems unable to present his ideas and policies in a convincing or attractive way. He allows himself to take the bait at PMQs when Cameron insults and taunts him, losing his temper instead of acting the serious statesman above the party political fray. I don’t believe that Labour under Brown can win an election, whenever it is held.
In spite of all these negatives, I believe that the balance of advantage for the country, and therefore also for the Labour party, lies in rallying round Gordon Brown and supporting him right up to the spring or early summer of 2010 — even though I don’t believe he can win it for Labour then either. Here are seven good reasons:
1. If the party elects a new leader and prime minister now (or very soon), there will be intense pressure for a general election almost immediately. The country can’t be expected to tolerate a second prime minister who has never led his party to an election victory, or even gone into an election as party leader, but who seems set on occupying Downing Street for nearly another year.
2. It is neither in the country’s nor in Labour’s interests to have a general election — and a change of government — before there has been a chance to see signs of success for Gordon Brown’s bold and far-sighted measures to minimise the effects of the recession, to help stimulate the economy so that recovery may begin earlier rather than later, and to lead and coordinate corresponding action by much of the rest of the world. It’s unrealistic to expect that there will be convincing evidence that these measures are succeeding until the end of this year or early next year, at the earliest. To hold an election before Labour can demonstrate that the government’s anti-recession policies are succeeding is to hand the Tories a golden opportunity to denounce them as financial profligacy, doomed to failure, in contrast to Conservative promises of tough measures to cut “wasteful” government spending (details not specified) and to bring other expenditures back “under control”.
3. A Tory victory at an early election would mean the new government immediately embarking on savage cuts to government spending even before we begin to recover from the effects of a deflationary recession. Quite apart from the effects of such cuts on essential public services such as health and education, and on benefits introduced by Labour to help shield the most vulnerable people in society from the effects of the recession, general cuts in government spending while we’re still in the depths of the recession would inevitably delay recovery from it, further aggravate unemployment, prolong the collapse in government revenues caused by the recession and thus bring forward the need for increased taxation — which in turn would further prolong the recession. Millions would suffer unnecessarily as a result. Cuts in government spending and increases in taxation are going to be unavoidable sooner or later, whichever party is in power: the really significant difference between the parties is over the timing. Labour rightly wants to defer these essentially deflationary measures until we have started to recover from the worst of the recession; the Tories want to start them immediately — in part, probably, because of their instinctive liking for cuts in spending on public services which the better-off rarely use, and for cutting taxes on the rich. Economic illiteracy may also play its part. Anyway, for all our sakes, the measures already taken by the Brown government need and deserve time to work. The Tories would reverse some and scrap the rest.
4. An election held before the late autumn (and a change of leader now would probably entail an election in the summer or very early autumn of this year) would almost certainly be won by the Tories, who would accordingly come into power before the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty and therefore before the treaty will have been brought into effect following ratification by all 27 EU governments. The Tories are firmly committed to holding a referendum on the treaty immediately after winning a general election if the treaty has not yet come into force, and they would undoubtedly act accordingly. Since Britain has already legally ratified the treaty, it’s difficult to see what options could usefully be offered in the referendum except a very vague and general question such as “Do you approve or disapprove of the Lisbon treaty?” Indeed, the temptation for the Tories to misrepresent the treaty as “the new EU constitution” in the referendum might prove irresistible. Either way, many voters, perhaps a majority, encouraged by both the government and most of the print and television media, would treat such a referendum as an opportunity to register a vote for or against UK membership of the EU, rather than on the much narrower question of the Lisbon treaty, whatever the precise wording on the ballot papers: and the outcome could well set in train a series of events culminating in our forced departure from the European Union (as I have argued elsewhere, e.g. here). The key point is that an unnecessary and divisive referendum on the EU would do even more harm to British interests, and represent an even graver threat to our continuing interests and role in Europe, than a demand by a Tory government, after the Lisbon treaty has been brought into effect, that the treaty should be re-opened and re-negotiated. Such a demand would win little if any support from our EU partners and with luck would be drowned out by their contemptuous laughter. This would be humiliating, but not necessarily seriously damaging. This is a weighty argument for deferring a UK general election until after the second Irish referendum, ratification by the few remaining governments that have not yet completed their ratification processes, and the coming into effect of the treaty. And deferring the election means not changing the party and national leadership now.
5. To plunge the Labour party into the all-absorbing arguments and personality competitions of a leadership election, and thus inflict on the country a period of several months of government inactivity and distraction, all at a time of almost unprecedentedly grave national crisis in the worst economic recession for three generations, would both be, and be seen to be, an act of grossly self-indulgent irresponsibility. There is still a vast amount of day-to-day work to be done in further protecting the poorest from the effects of the recession and speeding up our recovery from it. This is no time for the government to take time off for a huge internal wrangle over the succession to Gordon Brown.
6. There is no evidence that Alan Johnson, or any other credible candidate for the succession to Brown, would change existing government policies in any significant way: no-one who’s in with a chance is offering to scrap part-privatisation of the post office, ID cards, Trident, control orders or the other assaults on our freedoms introduced by successive Labour home secretaries under cover of the “war on terrorism”, so-called; no-one promises to withdraw from an unwinnable and misconceived conflict in Afghanistan; no-one has any idea how to answer the West Lothian question or to complete the process of devolution of all domestic powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or to remedy the glaring inconsistency whereby England alone has no parliament or government of its own or to give the second chamber a useful democratic function or to head off the threat of Scottish secession from the United Kingdom or to reverse the poisonous centralising tendencies of all governments for the last 20 years or to revive local government. Moreover, it’s not as if Alan Johnson, or any other likely candidate to succeed Gordon Brown, appears to possess such magnetic charisma and personal popular electoral appeal as might hold out a hope of reversing the precipitate decline in Labour’s fortunes. How many UK voters, shown a photograph of Alan Johnson, would be able to put a name to it or him? A change of leader now would risk being no real change at all either in policies or even of personalities.
7. The result of an early election — before the autumn, say — would almost certainly be a catastrophic defeat for Labour. A spring or early summer election in 2010, when with luck the first green shoots of recovery from recession might be starting to show, demonstrating a decent prospect of success for Brown’s economic management of the recession, and when (with even more luck) memories of the MPs’ expenses scandal may have begun to recede with the allowances rules having been drastically reformed, might hold out the prospect of a reasonable performance by Labour, even if the Tories (as seems likely) still won it. The more Labour MPs and candidates manage to survive the next election, the greater the chances of a reasonably early recovery by the party in opposition. And that means an election later rather than sooner.
Seven powerful reasons for letting Gordon soldier on until towards the middle of next year, and closing ranks now to give him united support in the meantime, whatever one’s private reservations about some of his policy intentions and personality traits. Not everyone will agree with all seven. But it’s hard, surely, to dismiss them all. Can anyone really suggest seven cogent reasons for plunging into a leadership contest now without risking any of the harmful consequences described above?