Thursday, 4 June 2009

Where are the life jackets on this thing?

So "Nuts about Hazel" who managed to come sixth in the Labour Deputy Leadership contest has left the Cabinet, in an indignant huff that GB didn't support her over her 'mistaken' claims. Well, sorry to break it to you Hazel, but your behaviour was unacceptable, along with so many of your colleagues, and it leaves many of us who are activists for the Party ashamed and let down by the behaviour of our representatives.

The fact is that the Government, long under pressure by the storms of political and public opinion (combined with a disappointing amount of self-inflicted damage), is now shipping water at a horrendous rate, with even the Guardian now laying into Gordon Brown's record. Polling shows the Tories surging ahead, even though I still have the suspicion that the electorate are more cheesed off with the Labour Party as opposed to being completely in love with Cameron. And now a letter is being circulated amongst Labour MPs, trying to draw together a murky little coalition to bring down the PM.

Of course this is entirely understandable given the abject standing of the Party just now and the likely annihilation that we face at the elections today. However, have the rebels thought through the implications of their coup? If GB is disposed and a new Leader/PM installed (Alan Johnson or, even more scarily, Harriet Harman???) there is no way that an immediate General Election could not be called. We do not have a Presidential system and this is why the complaints after Tony Blair stood down about GB not having a mandate were wide of the mark. However, a third PM in place since the last election would be ludicrous.

Who in their right mind would want to lead Labour into a General Election just now? An utter wipe out would occur, leaving the Party shattered for years to come and the new incumbent's leadership career finished before it started. It takes a lot of optimism to think that the political context and environment could have improved for Labour by next year, but it's hard to see how it could get much worse.

The problem with the leadership challenge is that there are no clear alternatives who could bring anything exciting to the table. A decade in Government has led to stagnation amongst our body of MPs - there are no new and interesting names forcing their way through to demand attention, rather a reshuffle of an ever declining pack. Familiarity breeds contempt, and that does go a long way to explaining public views towards the Government.

Fundamentally, however, the rot is due to the lack of ideas behind how the Government is working. The greatest achievements of Labour's term in power - minimum wage, new deal etc - came from the heady early days of power, when the UK was being reshaped into an exciting new social democratic paradise, the two powers of Blair and Brown driving us forward into a future of prosperity for all. But then the egos and the rivalries kicked in - the Party was poisoned as soon as we had Blairites and Brownites, leaving the rest of us Labourites sitting on the sidelines as our leadership proceeded to kill itself.

A new dawn is needed for the Labour Party - a moment of stopping to say what is it we exist for? What are our priorities? I still believe that as a Party we have the opportunities and desires to make huge changes to our country, to correct the imbalances which exist and to create opportunities for all to achieve their potential. But this cannot be done through infighting and posturing.

Our pride as the Labour Party has always been that we have been the party of the people - all the people. The Tories have always been rooted in their support for the rich and the Lib Dems represent...well, they represent whoever they think will vote for them that day, but have certainly taken a rightward jump under Nick Clegg. The saddest thing about our time in Government is that we are no longer seen as the party of the people - rather we have tarnished this mantle so much that the BNP are doing their best to try and steal it for their own sickening ends.

How do we regain this role for ourselves? I don't think a rush back to the left extremes is required - the people are not there. But a desire to out-Tory the Tories leaves us looking shallow and meaningless - the people are not there either. What we need is to overhaul the candidates we have in place for the Party, to ensure that it reverts back to having members from all elements of society - not just career politicians and lawyers, but teachers, workers, academics, service professionals and health professionals too. We need young people and old people, people with families and single people. We need ethnic minority candidates and ethnic majority candidates. We need to bring together a massive coalition of all of the skills and experiences of the citizens of our country to ensure that Parliament and the Party never loses sight of who it works for again.

We need to explore the Big Tent approach, to work with others where appropriate to achieve the best and most successful consensus for progress. We need to reform democracy - introduce proportional representation to eliminate the unhealthy and unjust huge majorities which have contributed to the disconnection of the Government from the electorate; strict term limits for Parliament with elections set in stone; introduce term limits for the Speaker so that constituencies are not hampered by their MP ceasing to have the time to serve them. I will return to these in their own separate post, but they can contribute to revitalising our democratic structures.

If the Government manages to hold on for another year before losing in the next General Election, then GB should take this opportunity to go for broke. Presume the election lost and therefore damn the repercussions - he should allow his Presbyterian sensibilities which have been so offended recently to push the agenda, putting reform of politics and the elimination of inequalities at the fore front of his work. The initial achievements of the Labour Government which TB introduced are now pretty safe - the Tories are unlikely to rescind the minimum wage for example even if they would like to. However, they will try and push back anything else that they can. The Prime Minister needs to go for broke and try and leave the country closer to the vision of what he would like it to be.

The Labour Party will not die from this mess, just as the Conservatives did not die from the rout of 97. However, it is vital that it does more than just survive. There must be open and frank discussion of the future direction of the Party, with all sections of the internal spectrum, right and left, free to air their views and contribute to a rebirth. Anything else, however, will be a devastating abdication of our responsibilities to the people we represent and who depend upon us to raise their issues.

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