Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 August 2008
What an extraordinary fortnight in politics. Labour, in the doldrums in the polls and recently humiliated in local elections in England and Wales, loses what was a safe Westminster seat in a by-election in urban Scotland, and there is an outbreak of apocalyptic doom-mongering among columnists and backbench MPs. Then the prime minister goes on holiday – and the foreign secretary writes a comment piece for the Guardian in which he says that Labour has rather a lot to be proud of but should admit it has made mistakes…
At which point everyone goes completely bonkers. For ten days the papers are filled with denunciations of Gordon Brown, profiles of the young pretender David Miliband – has he got what it takes? – and rumours of plots to unseat the PM, one of which is apparently aimed at getting him out by the end of the month.
All right, I’m out of the loop, and it’s entirely possible that, as I write, Miliband and his supporters are furiously phoning, emailing and texting colleagues in an attempt to get them to ditch the hopeless Brown before Labour conference – but somehow I doubt it.
Miliband’s article and subsequent media appearances undoubtedly constitute a conscious attempt to position himself as the front-runner for the Labour leadership should a vacancy arise – but the qualification is important. I don’t think they presage an attempt to challenge Brown directly, even though it’s quite apparent that Miliband (just like every other Brit with an interest in politics) recognises that Brown is completely incapable of winning the next general election.
The reason Miliband’s actions don’t seem to me the prelude to a straight leadership challenge is simple: Labour Party rules. When Labour last changed its arrangements for electing its leader, way back in 1993, it made it ludicrously difficult to depose a Labour prime minister. I once asked Larry Whitty, the party’s general secretary at the time of the rule change, how it could be done – and his response was that, as a former Stalinist, he’d made sure it was impossible.
He was joking – but only a bit. By the rules, the only way an incumbent Labour leader, however useless, can be ditched is by a de facto vote of no confidence at party conference. To organise that except in the most extreme circumstances would be as near to impossible as you can get. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I don’t think Gordon is going to be given the boot by the massed delegates in Manchester next month.
There is another way formally to force a leader out. No parliamentary Labour leader could continue without the support of Labour MPs. Again, I might have missed something, but I don’t think the PLP is in the mood to organise a vote of no confidence against Brown, however poorly it rates him, and even if it was I’d doubt its ability to do it.
Which leaves the proverbial men in grey suits – a delegation of senior cabinet and party figures that goes to see Brown and tells him his time is up. It’s not impossible; it might just happen. But to have any chance of success the delegation would need to include several hardcore Brown allies: I’d say Alistair Darling, John Denham and Harriet Harman, all of whom have professed undying loyalty this week. No go, there, it seems, at least for now.
So – it looks like it’s a matter of persuading Gordon to go gently, drip by drip. It doesn’t need a plot: everyone who meets him simply needs to tell him straightforwardly and politely that he hasn’t a hope of winning the next election and that he ought to resign (at the right time) for the sake of the party. If he ignores the advice, so be it – but then Labour can guarantee disaster 1931-style at the next general election, with or without Derek Draper.
Miliband is the blindingly obvious alternative to Brown. He is not perfect, but he is a good man. He is a centrist in the current Labour Party (not a Blairite). He is young and attractive. He has done a decent job as foreign secretary. And he has some sensible ideas about how Labour can renew itself that are not the usual bollocks. He is also remarkably uncontaminated by the vicious infighting at the top of the Labour Party over the past 20 years.
My fear is that Brown holds tight then loses disastrously. Then it would be 2019 or 2020 at least before we see another Labour government again – by which time I’ll be drawing my pension. Gordon, please agree to go. Please. It’s been nice having you, but your time is up. We can’t force you out but you know what you need to do. Sword. Fall on. Early next year. The party will be grateful.