Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Party on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


When he became Laboru leader in 1994, Tony Blair said that he hadn’t been born in the Labour Party but would he would die in it. What he didn’t say is what he would do if Labour died first.
Can Tony Blair last another year as leader of the Labour Party? The short answer is yes: there is no sign of him standing down. The real question, though, is whether there will be a Labour Party left to lead.
2006 is likely to be a critical year for Labour, perhaps the most important since 1931, when the party split and the Labour PM Ramsay MacDonald formed a National Government. Yes, it really is as bad as that.
Labour is a party on the verge of a nervous brakdown. Unable to coexist with a leader it no longer respects, the party faces disintegration and could lose power for a generation.
Rancour and Indiscipline has now become the rule rather than the exception in the Parliamentary Labour Party. On a whole range of issues - education, nuclear power, trident, smoking, terrorism - the authority of the Prime Minister is being directly and openly flouted.
Indeed, there is almost an alternative Labour government emerging in the House of Commons, composed of senior backbenchers and ex ministers like John Denham and Estelle Morris, busy drafting ‘real Labour’ policies such as the ‘alternative’ education white paper.
As this movement gains strength and confidence, Tony Blair could find himself a leader without a party.
David Cameron’s Conservatives have offered to salvage the Prime MInister’s legislation, but if the PM were to take that lifeline, it would only confirm what many Labourites fear: that Tony Blair really is a Tory in disguise.
Some Labour MPs almost past caring. So sickened are they by the war in Iraq and the PM’s domestic reforms that they are almost giving up on politics. They have been waiting for so long for Gordon Brown to take over that they have almost given up on the Chancellor.
Most Labour people believe that Gordon Brown will be more with the grain of the Labour movement. But when? Brown risks becoming damaged goods; becoming yesterday’s man, even before he becomes today’s.. The fresh face of David Cameron only underlines how worn and shop-soiled the chancellor has become.
Some wonder, dolefully, whether he will be any better than Blair; whether he might turn out to be another neo-conservative in Labour clothing. Last year Brown penned a dedication to a book, Neo Conservatism, but Rupert Murdoch’s consiglieri, Irwin Stelzer. The Chancellor’s allies are saying that he intends to be as much of a reformer as Tony Blair and he has placed spending cuts very firmly on the budgetary agenda for later this parliament..
So 2006 represents an existential crisis for Labour. It could be on the verge of giving up on trying to be the ‘party of government’ and returing to its default as the party of opposition. Labour is to internal dissent of a kind unseen since the 1980s and the high tide of Bennism.
It seems only yesterday that we were all lamenting the way that Labour MPs had all become "pager clones": ultra loyalists who didn't utter a word unless it had been cleared by Alastair Campbell. How times change. MPs have become intoxicated with rebellion. The Labour benches resemble one of those university occupations from the 1970's a seething mass of inchoate dissent.
It all began with the crushing of the ninety day detention proposal in the Prevention of Terrorism Act in November - the worst defeat suffered by a Labour Prime Minister in nearly forty years. If Labour MPs didn’t sing the Red Flag it was only because most of them have forgotten the words. The epic character of the rebellion was encapsulated by the former Labour health secretary, Frank Dobson: 'Fear no more the frown o' the great" he pronounced, quoting Shakespeare’s Cymbeline,"Thou art past the tyrant's stroke" .
It is a measure of how far things have deteriorated that Labour MPs calling their leader a tyrant is no longer remarkable. Ex ministers like Clare Short regularly say he is effectively a war criminal and should resign. Even the Deputy Prime MInister, John Prescott, who used to lecture Labour conferences on the need for discipline, has now taken openly to criticising his leader’s flagship policies. He has even revived the language of class war.
If Prescott has given up on Blair, then the end cannot be far away. Except that it isn’t. Tony Blair simply won’t take the hint. The more his party turns against him, the more dogged seems to be his determination to proceed with his own reform agenda. He’s looking forward with confidence, according to his pre=Christmas press briefing. Hacks were left wondering what he know that they didn’t.
It’s as if he thrives on being hated by his own people. Who knows, following Sinn Fein, maybe we’ll discover that Tony Blair has been a double agent all along. Fantasy of course - but the Prime Minister seems almost an alien in his own backyard.
The Prime Minister has an extraordinarily thick skin and an unrivalled capacity for self-belief. The man's sheer staying power is astonishing. After the disaster of the Iraq war, the collapse of his support during the 2005 general election, the blocking of his public sector reforms by his own backbench, you'd have thought that any normal politicians would be thinking of packing it in. Going off to spend more time with his family, making a packet on the lucrative lecture circuit in America, seeking sinecures in Europe or on the boards of Britain's largest companies.
I mean, why put up with the hassle, what more has Tony Blair got to prove? He has secured his place in the history books by delivering an historic third general election victory for Labour. What is there left to do?
Of course, there is his “legacy” thing. We keep being told that the Prime Minister wants to leave an indelibile mark on Great Britain; that he wants to emulate Margaret Thatcher, not just as a war leader, but as a radical reformer. However, a lame duck Prime Minister, running out of time, he must surely realise that there is prcious little chance of him securing any thing substantoial.
Consider what Margaret Thatcher had achieved after her first eight years at the helm: privatisation, council house sales, trades union reforms. For good or ill, these policies transformed Britain. What has Blair achieved? What monumnets will be left to his administration, apart from the Millennium Dome?
There have been significant economic achievements under Labour like the granting of independence to the Bank of England to set interest rates. Then there is the national minimum wage, tax credits, modest redistribution of wealth, the reibuilding of the finances of the NHS. But these are all down to Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair.
As is what is arguably the most significant achievement of the Labour government - eight years of sustained economic growth. Despite the dot com stock market crash and an astonishing house price bubble the economy has been growing steadily year on year, though perhaps for not much longer.
Brown may have got his most recent forecasts wrong, but across the piece, this Labour chancellor has more than a right to claim that he abolished boom and bust, at least for a decade. The Tories may say that they laid the ground for it, but only someone with Gordon Brown's intellectual mastery of modern economics could constructed built the edifice. .
Tony Blair's own achievements have been modest to the point of embarrassment. The Northern Ireland peace process is stalled; the Middle East remains in turmoil; Africa is still in abject poverty despite the G8 and the PM’s promise to “heal the scar on the conscience of the world” Europe is in a mess with Britian further from the “heart of Europe” than it was under John Major. Britain is on the point of abandoning its targets for climate change and is being propelled into a desperate nuclear gamble.
Tony Blair likes to portray himself as a great public sector reformer who is obstructed by bureaucracy, special interest and - well - the Chancellor. But what has the PM actually achieved? He tried to turn the NHS upside down and has had some success reducing waiting lists, but at the cost of huge deficits for NHS trusts, closed wards and key foundation hospitals going bust. His solution is more of the same market medicine. I don’t hear doctors in Scotland wanting to emulate his reform agenda here.
In English schools he has tried to abolish the 'bog standard comprehensive' but has succeeded in creating a bewildering array of new types of school - faith, beacon, foundation, specialist, city academy etc- Some of them are sort-of selective. Mr Blair insists he doesn;t want to return to academic selection, but his party simply doesn’t believe him.
The row over the education white paper will define the early months of 2006. It really is a battle for the soul of Labour. The party senses that Tony Blair wants to abolish comprehensive education altogether and allow for the emergence of a new tier of selective schools for the middle classes. John Prescott made clear a fortnight ago that he believes the entire choice agenda is purely designed to allow the pushy middle classes to sideline children from poorer backgrounds; and have them cleared off to no-hope sink schools.
If the Prime Minister cannot persuade his own deputy, then what are MPs to make of it? His attempts to place admission policy in the.hands of schools has been blocked by his own backbench. Ruth Kelly has had to re-write the white paper to restore the power of local authorities as a way of trying to reassure Labour MPs that selection is not on the agenda. But this concession this makes a nonsense of the entire policy which was to liberate schools from local authority conservatism.
Having achieved real success in scuppering the PM’s education policy, the next rebellion is likely over smoking. More than 50 Labour MPs have now signed up to a motion requesting a free vote on a total ban on smoking in public places. The Labour-dominated Commons Health Select Committee has said that the partial ban favoured by the PM is “ unfair, unjust and unworkable”. It seems only a matter of time before Tony Blair is forced to concede on this one.
On Trident, the PM is likely to stand firm. He made clear in the election campaign that he intended to maintain and renew the nuclear deterrent, so he can claim it an election pledge. But many Labour MPs echoe the late Robin Cook’s argument that Trident is an expensive irrelevance, and that the government could find better uses for the #20 billion cost. What better way to give the world a lead than for Britain to renounce this weapons system which was designed for the Cold War and targets one of our allies - Russia.
The other issue that will dominate 2006 is Iraq - the war that won’t end. Tony Blair had hoped that the establishment of a free and democratic Iraq would be top of his legacy list At the very least, he will want to stay until British troops are brought home.
But that isn’t going to happen. Iraq remains the greatest foreign policy disaster of modern times, and all the PMs work. He would be better to cut his losses now, following the Iraqi general elections than hang around for a new dawn that will never come.
Perhaps the PM will realise all this over the Christmas break. Come to see that it is futile to go on and on when every cherished policy is blocked. Maybe he will surprise us all by announcing that he intends to stand down as leader at the 2006 party conference in order to allow a leadership election for his successor. You can never rule this out. Tony Blair is impulsive and capable of pulling surprises.
But my bet is that he will stick in Number Ten to the bitter end. He will want at the very least to get back at David Cameron for that gybe that “He was the future, once”. You can never underestimate how important the personal is in politics. The main reason - indeed some would say the only reason to stay on is to wipe that grin of Cameron’s face. Prove to his party and the country that he still is the genuine article - original and best - when it comes to political charm.
Perhaps then Blair will pull the plug on the most successful and the most damaging Labour administration in history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some interesting points you make. It could just be that the WP ends up uniting the party or splitting it. Key will be the amendments that are table in committee stage - yes I think it will pass the second reading.

Are you in favour of selection - why not visit the on-line poll on wheter England should keep selection or not - the URL is