Six Months to Save Labour: The Government Looks Doomed, and It May Even Be Heading for Its Own May 1997-Style Catastrophe. If the Left Wants to Save It, It Needs to Start Answering Some Tough Questions

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), June 26, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Six Months to Save Labour: The Government Looks Doomed, and It May Even Be Heading for Its Own May 1997-Style Catastrophe. If the Left Wants to Save It, It Needs to Start Answering Some Tough Questions


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


On a hot Saturday in June, 1,100 people gathered for a conference in Westminster organised by Compass, a liberal-left pressure group which thrashes out the arguments about what on earth Labour should do after Tony Blair has gone. Given the scandals and the blunderings, the plummeting membership and the dire poll ratings, the indifference of the general public and the derision from the public-school media, I was expecting a wake, and a dismal, alcohol-free wake at that, Instead, I found myself in the middle of a revivalist rally.

For a few hours it was possible to believe that Labour could renew itself in office and win next time. Everything about the conference augured well. There were no Trots, and very little left utopianism or academic obscurantism. The presence of young and interesting speakers showed that Labour politics wasn't yet a rest home for the elderly and eccentric. The quality of the speakers was high in general and the quality of the questions from the floor matched it. Compass was founded by former special advisers and workers for the leftish think-tanks that had once believed in Tony Blair. Although disillusioned, they retained the belief that you can't change anything without winning power. And that was good to see, too.

As I sat on the grass outside and gazed at the forbidding facade of Westminster Central Hall, I wondered if the government's position was as forbidding as it appeared. The Tories have based their revival on ignoring their core vote and moving leftwards. If only Labour could regain its poise, I thought, it could set the terms of the Conservative surrender, exposing David Cameron as a phoney if he didn't accept genuinely centrist policies, or driving a wedge between him and most of his supporters if he did.

Meanwhile it seemed to me that the flip-flopping of the Liberal Democrats could be as useful to Labour. They deserve far more attention than they get, because they are the kingmakers of British politics. They usually win a fifth of the vote or more, and which rival party they take votes from usually decides whether Labour or the Tories win power. Charles Kennedy was their most successful leader since the 1920s because he managed--brilliantly--to win the votes of Conservatives in the south of England and Welsh and Scottish borders while moving into the Labour heartlands in the north. He never made the mistake of allowing his party to be pigeonholed as "left" or "right", because pigeonholing would alienate potential supporters.

After the shabby assassination of Kennedy, Sir Menzies Campbell seized the hollow crown and made the mistake his predecessor had tried so hard to avoid. He has turned the Liberal Democrats into a tax-cutting centre-right party which is getting "tougher" on crime by the day. Sir Menzies had to do it because of the threat from the Conservatives in his southern and rural seats, but his U-turn will take the pressure off Labour as the Lib Dems devote most of their energies to fighting off the Tories. An added bonus for Labour is that, in an age in which superficial media images rule, Sir Menzies looks and sounds like a caricature member of the old ruling class--which goes to show that superficial media images don't always deceive, because that is exactly what he is.

Maybe the sun was getting to me, but I put together the enthusiasm that the Labour movement can still inspire and the potential difficulties of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and I thought that perhaps this government wasn't going the way of the Major administration after all.

Then six questions hit me, and my optimism cracked ...

What's happened?

Sunder Katwala, the general secretary of the Fabians, dragged me off for a beer and complained that no one knows what to think because there is no agreed "narrative" about this government. The supporters of Tony Blair and, to a lesser extent, the supporters of Gordon Brown believe that it has taken centre-left politics about as far as politicians can take them in modern Britain.

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Six Months to Save Labour: The Government Looks Doomed, and It May Even Be Heading for Its Own May 1997-Style Catastrophe. If the Left Wants to Save It, It Needs to Start Answering Some Tough Questions
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