Monday 6 October 2008

Rethinking the reshuffle

Monday October 6th was – just a fortnight ago - being earmarked as the red letter day in the Labour leadership crisis. On the opening weekend in Manchester, the whisper among those seeking change at the top was that the party conference might rally behind the leader but that the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party would not. And it was suggested that any attempt to use the powers of the premiership to reshuffle decisively out of trouble could merely precipitate a potentially fatal crisis with any Prime Ministerial changes overshadowed by the departure of disgruntled colleagues, from the junior ranks and perhaps the Cabinet itself.

The dramatic coup de theatre of the reshuffle has confounded these predictions. So tonight’s Parliamentary Labour Party meeting has marked a significant moment of a different kind: the end of hostilities. Barring some catastrophic breakdown, the question of the leadership is now off the agenda, certainly to mid-2009. Gordon Brown is now overwhelmingly likely to lead his party into a general election, most probably the following year. Few would have made that prediction confidently before the party conference: it seems a much safer bet tonight.

But does this ‘New Labour Reunited’ line-up mean that Brown, now the candidate of experience, has had to ditch the message of ‘change’ on which he ran last year, and even the 'fairness' message of his conference speech? That was Polly Toynbee’s conclusion, arguing that Brown has put together a 1997 tribute band which will struggle to refresh the party’s agenda in different times, while Andrew Grice writes that Brown has nailed his colours to the Blairite mast.

There is a good reason why that may be the conventional wisdom of the leading Westminster watchers: it is quite probably the most plausible reading of events. But let me at least suggest an alternative, perhaps slightly counter-intuitive argument.

Gordon Brown has become more explicitly social democratic on political narrative and policy strategy during this economic and political crisis. It is hardly difficult to gauge whether his 2008 ‘fairness’ argument or his 2007 ‘trust me’ address was closest to his ‘best when we are Labour’ political credo of 2003. Is this increasingly Labour public narrative at odds with his reshuffle rapprochement with Peter Mandelson? Perhaps not. (After all, Mandelson was closely involved with Brown's preparations for the Manchester speech).

Remember that Tony Blair expressed – in a private memo – the worry that Gordon Brown was not running on ‘continuity’ with his argument for ‘change’.The (legitimate) Blairite fear was that Brown risked ‘dissing’ the party’s own record. Yet the ‘continuity argument’ risked failing to understand New Labour’s political success – that its opponents, having lost three times in a row had learnt how not to lose that election again – as well as the dangers from the fracturing of New Labour's own electoral coalition.

And the irony was that, while Brown was always going to combine continuity and change, it was the ‘change’ that had eluded public definition. That was not a point confined to Brownites (or indeed we non-factional Fabians) who had anticipated a greater shift in policy. Too little change was also the subtle (not much noticed) message of Charles Clarke’s New Statesman article: when it came to the 10p rate and other issues, the government had stuck too closely to the 1997 Blair-Brown script.

However, defining a change agenda against a Blairite (internal) opposition risked both making the party seem divided and play into Conservative claims of a lurch away from the centre-ground. Fixing New Labour's factional arguments may have been a necessary first step to renewing the government's political agenda.

The ‘outside left’ has certainly been wary about the reshuffle's implications. Michael Meacher and John McDonnell quickly expressing their doubts. Jon Cruddas reportedly chose not to join a new party unity government, but is likely to stick to the agenda which gave him a strong conference: staying out of the personality politics while promoting constructive policy challenge from the government’s left flank.

But the government will need an ‘inside left’ too: something which has been rather muted since the summer of 2007. Ed Balls’ comments on the dangers of ‘light tough’ regulation could turn out to have been an interesting example of how the most effective rewriting of New Labour may come from within. Much hope is being placed on Ed Miliband (and from an unusually wide-ranging voices, including Alan Simpson). And while stocks are now being over-sold in the elder Miliband brother (just as they were over-bought in August), but I stand by my analysis that his agenda is a social democratic one.

Peter Mandelson has been New Labour’s pantomine villain for some in his own party as well as the media. (I may myself have got a laughline by referring to him as Lord Voldermort when Gaby Hinsliff quizzed the Fabian question time panel about whether we were intensely relaxed at people getting filthy rich). But it is worth remembering too that Mandleson has been the senior Labour figure most engaged with European Social Democracy, through the Policy Network alliance of modernising centre-left voices. Note that Roger Liddle - Mandelson’s co-author on the Blair Revolution and a long-time ally – has taken up the social democratic response to inequality (including at the top) as a major Policy Network theme.

In truth, it was always an odd question to ask whether Gordon Brown was New Labour enough, when he had largely dominated the economic and social policy agenda. How much truer that is of the new Brown-Mandelson alliance. The real question to the founders of New Labour – and the key advisors a decade ago who are now emerging as frontline politicians in their own right– is whether they understand how New Labour must change to remain relevant.

Think-tankers (like governments) complain about the focus on personalities - but this has been a month of high-wire politics at its most dangerously compelling. But do please allow me the more boring point that the issue of defining the distinctive public message which can persuade enough voters that there is a choice between alternate governments (and not simply a referendum on the incumbents) now remains. It matters less that Douglas Alexander, not Peter Mandelson, will coordinate Labour’s election campaign than that New Labour Reunited understands that its 1997 campaign playbook and script will no longer work against the New Tory challenge.

This old gang reunited may yet succeed. But the reshuffle spectacular may be the easy part. The task now is to show how the new personnel of the Cabinet and the fairness message of Manchester can be meshed effectively together.

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