Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 September 2009
And so – we’re into the final straight. This autumn’s political conferences mark the beginning of a very long election campaign that looks likely to end with Labour being defeated next spring. All right, it’s not over until it’s over, you never know what might turn up, and all that.
But the Tory lead in the opinion polls is so consistent and so large that it would take a minor miracle for Labour to win even though the Tories need a very big swing to win a Commons majority.
Which is extremely depressing – and not just because the Tories are such third-rate incompetent reactionaries (though of course they are), but also because Labour seems in such poor shape to bounce back after a defeat.
Labour’s problems start at the top. Let’s assume that Gordon Brown remains Labour leader and PM right up to the election – I’m still hoping he doesn’t, but that’s by-the-way – and that not too many of the current cabinet lose their seats. Brown might do a Jim Callaghan and hang on as party leader for a while, but hunch says that he won’t and that the contest to succeed him will be open – the first Labour leadership election since 1983 in which one candidate is not a shoo-in. My guess is that the main contenders will be Ed Balls and David Miliband, but I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few others have a go: Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas (as long as they’re still MPs), maybe Peter Mandelson (if he can find a way of returning as an MP), perhaps two or three others. OK, it’s not quite a barren field – but none of them exactly gets the juices flowing. There isn’t a Blair or even a Kinnock.
And that, if you like, is the end of the not-so-bad news, because everything else looks dire for Labour. Outside its upper echelons, the parliamentary Labour Party has never been shorter of talent – and that is before the departure of 100 or more retiring MPs and goodness knows how many others who will lose their seats at the general election. Labour MPs’ morale is by all accounts still at rock bottom after the expenses scandal. At the grass roots, Labour is in a terrible state, its membership dwindling and disillusioned and its local government representation weaker than for 30 years. The trade unions are worse led and shorter of cash and activists than at any time in living memory. There is little sign of intelligent life among the left-leaning think-tanks (with the partial exception of Compass) or in most of the left press (present company excepted, of course).
It’s true that there is also no evidence of the deep-rooted ideological disagreements and personal back-biting that did Labour so much damage the last time it was turfed out of government, in 1979. It’s difficult to envisage Labour conference in 2011 embracing withdrawal from Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament and widespread nationalisation – and I certainly can’t picture four former members of the government defecting from Labour to set up a rival centrist party in January 2012.
But just because it’s not the same as 1979 doesn’t mean that it might not be just as bad. The 1980s were dreadful for Labour, and no one in his or her right mind wants to relive the miners’ strike, Militant, rate-capping and Red Wedge. It was nevertheless when Labour began the long process of rebuilding that culminated in its victory in 1997. The Bennite insurgency of the early 1980s might have been destructive, deluded and transitory, but it brought a whole new generation into Labour politics – and the election defeats of 1979, 1983 and 1987 (along with the defeats of the miners’ and Wapping strikes) forced Labour to rethink and renew its whole programme, for the most part for the better.
In other words, there was sufficient energy and enthusiasm about Labour after 1979 for the party to emerge fitter and stronger from what appeared for several years to be a life-threatening crisis. What’s worrying today is that the never-say-die spirit is so notable by its absence. At every level, Labour seems tired, resigned and confused, and there’s no new generation of activists waiting in the wings.
Maybe that will all change before the election: I hope it does, and that Labour runs a dynamic campaign and wins. Perhaps if Labour loses it will be only by a small margin and it will recover quickly, with a fresh leader and the Tories’ popularity evaporating as they axe public services. But I have a horrible feeling in my bones that we could be in for a long and thankless exile wandering in the wilderness.