Brown's legacy may be a party never again able to rule alone

In the last of his dispatches on the party leaders, Donald Macintyre is struck by the indomitability of a man facing an electoral disaster that could scar the movement he loves for generations

In David Hare's The Power of Yes – the stunning theatrical event at the National which, in documenting the roots of the banking crisis, also does much to illuminate the early pre-history of this watershed election – the only politician depicted on stage is the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, who once worked at Number 10 for Tony Blair and stood for the deputy leadership of the party in 2007. The character of Cruddas – who spoke to Hare as he was writing the play – recalls with considerable irony the mood that informed the Blair-Brown axis at its triumphant peak: "Think about that. The longest period of uninterrupted growth for three hundred years. New Labour bet the ranch on the financial services. And it paid off. Tony Blair told us it was a new economy. The old cycles of capitalism had been abolished. The class-based solutions of old Labour were no longer relevant because the laws of political economy had been suspended..." Brown was being acclaimed as the most successful Chancellor of all time. "Only, you know how the Roman conquerors had people beside them whispering 'sic transit gloria'; Gordon needed somebody whispering 'Regulate'."

The way we were. Another character in the play, financial head-hunter Paul Hammond, argues that "the City was his cash cow. Of course he wasn't going to regulate it. Because with the [taxes] it made him, he could do all the things he was really interested in like schools and hospitals." That may be so; but detailed argument over the extent that the failure to regulate financial services in the UK contributed to the banking crash here has been, of course, almost wholly absent from this election, for the simple reason that the Conservative Opposition – as over the other most important event of the New Labour years, the Iraq war – colluded with the Government's approach.

To anyone revisiting the country after several years away, however, the Cruddas character in the Hare play reminds you how much, post-crash, has changed, how many of the old New Labour mantras no longer obtain: banks nationalised, a limited Keynesian approach to borrowing for recovery, active government intervention to boost manufacturing industry – even the once much-derided "picking winners" – are all staples of the party's approach.

And whatever Brown's – and Tony Blair's – part in exacerbating the causes of the crisis, you don't have to follow the Prime Minister for more than a few hours, in supermarkets, primary schools, and universities, to recognise his genuine conviction that this is what his Foreign Secretary David Miliband has called a "Labour moment" – that his party is best equipped by ideology or instinct as well as experience to cope with its effects. The question is not just whether he is the best person to do it; it is also whether the vehicle itself is still working; whether indeed this is a party which can govern on its own not just after Thursday, but ever again.

While he was on the train to Bournemouth for the Royal College of Nursing conference, a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald asked Gordon Brown if he thought Britain could be in for a repeat of the 1993 Australian election. This was the one in which the Labour leader Paul Keating defied universal predictions – and a deeply hostile Murdoch press – by defeating his Liberal opponent John Hewson.

Unsurprisingly, Brown, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of politics, lit up at the question. For the parallels are tantalising. Keating was the sitting Prime Minister, who had from within the Cabinet supplanted a once overwhelmingly popular Bob Hawke two years earlier. Australia had gone through a tough economic recession which was one of the reasons the election was thought totally unwinnable. "People said Paul Keating's style had not been very good in that debate," Brown recalled about the campaign, "but when people were asked at the end of it what they thought the issues were, they said the economy. And he won."

Curiously Brown did not remember another, even more pointed, parallel that would obtain if by some miracle he woke up on Friday to find himself the winner. On the morning of his 1993 victory – one to savour all the more since many of his ministers had begun their recriminations on coast-to-coast TV before the results were actually known – the re-elected Keating took a call from Rupert Murdoch. "Sorry, Paul," the press baron is said to have told the Prime Minister, cheerfully passing the buck to one of his senior executives, "Bill called it wrong." How sweet it would be; an unalloyed triumph over his detractors in the press, in the party and, increasingly, in his own Cabinet. But all the signs are that Brown is now fighting – and in his speech on Monday, the best he has made in this extraordinary campaign, he showed how hard he really is fighting – for a second place in share of the national vote. Only by doing so can he avoid the ignominy of the worst Labour result since 1922, let alone any vestigial chance of hanging on to power.

The Brown tour has been a bundle of contradictions. At the RCN, where most of his audience, albeit a little slowly, rose to their feet in a standing ovation in response to his fulsome praise for their profession – "angels... heroes" – two critical care nurses sitting beside each other had precisely opposite reactions. " I think he is a very honest and generous person," said Rachel Binks, 46. "I was really convinced."

Her friend Sheila Godman, 54, said: "I am not. They tell us what they think we want to hear. And, no, I am not sure how I'm going to vote."

Later, two days after the Mrs Duffy episode and the day after the final TV debate, his tour began with the now famous car crash which torpedoed the party's ill-starred poster launch in Birmingham. "We'll try and arrange a plague of locusts or a mini-earthquake for you, just to keep you on your toes," said a remarkably even-tempered Brown tour aide.

You only have to travel on the Labour bus to see the contrast between the party's cash-strapped campaign and the others. At a cost of more than £500, the charges to the press are one of the main sources of funding for the campaign. But unlike when you travel with teams Clegg and Cameron, there are fewer sandwiches, no work tables, not even intermittent wireless, and for the most part no party leader. And, as we will soon learn, insufficient speed.

At a sports centre in Loughborough, a Tory target seat where the Labour MP Andy Reed is fighting for his political life, several times Brown, whether wisely or not, spoke to its medal-winning gymnasts about the "inner strength" needed "to win". It was possible for a moment to forget about the car crash and think the campaign was going well.

Yet by the time Brown arrived – late – at Blidworth Oaks Primary School in what was once the Nottinghamshire coalfield, he looked – and sometimes sounded – dog-tired. You couldn't help wondering how he would face Jeremy Paxman in a few hours' time; in fact it was one of his strongest TV performances.

Brown is invariably courteous, warm even, seemingly genuinely grateful to be invited by his hosts. Yet his answers to the ten and 11-year-olds, who had waited patiently for his arrival, tended to wander. Emma, a Blidworth pupil, asked him a poignant question with more historical baggage than she can possibly have known: "I know your job is difficult but why did you choose it?"

Brown's answer – again courteous – was clear enough; that he, like the children, had lived in a place which had lost a lot of jobs and he wanted to do something to help, aspiring to become a Member of Parliament, where he was lucky enough to represent "my friends and the people I grew up with". And then, he added, almost as an afterthought, he had become Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister.

He toured the class to ask the pupils amiably what they wanted to do when they grew up. "Scientist," said one. "Ah, great, an inventor. What would you like to invent?" "A time capsule".

And indeed it was time to go. We had been promised at the least a "huddle" with the Prime Minister on his train from Newark, our first real contact with him since the Duffy episode. He sped off from Blidworth under police escort in the back of his Prime Ministerial Jaguar and running from the car – with the customary "how're you doing" to the station staff – made the train.

Can a Prime Minister not hold up a train? Apparently not; our bus lumbered up to the station as the train pulled out. It was probably no one's fault. But, like the fiasco of the microphone and Mrs Duffy, it was impossible to imagine it happening on a Blair campaign – or for that matter a Cameron or a Clegg one.

Yet any post-mortem on Labour's failures in this election, if so they prove to be, is likely to focus on a much earlier period than the campaign itself. There is no point in rehearsing the painful arguments in favour of an election in 2007 after Brown took office. And while Labour figures believe that it would have been better to subordinate the economy to more specific policies offered on crime, immigration and anti-social behaviour, Brown may well have been right to focus on the economy, given both that he had won praise for his – and his Chancellor's – handling of the financial crisis and that the deficit was the looming issue for all parties, and he could reasonably claim the authority and experience to tackle it.

The question was whether it had actually yet done enough to establish superior credibility given that the details of Labour's plans to start cutting the deficit were hardly clearer after next year than any of the other main parties. It is well known that Alistair Darling, who had undoubtedly enhanced his reputation as Chancellor despite the "forces of hell" unleashed at him at one stage from Number 10 would have preferred to take the bold step of raising VAT in his Pre-Budget Report last November, a move which would have almost certainly won more approval from the business and economic community than the National Insurance increase.

Brown had – with conspicuous success – fought the election alongside Blair in 2001 and 2005 on his favoured "dividing lines" of Labour investment versus Tory cuts. This was fine in good times. But it is open to question whether it works as well in the aftermath of an economic crisis which has created, albeit for the best of reasons, a massive deficit.

Darling and Peter Mandelson argued for a franker and earlier acknowledgement that deep cuts were needed; Darling is said to have wanted to be much more specific about future departmental spending totals, which would have enhanced Labour credibility on the deficit while putting more pressure on the Conservatives to be specific about their own plans.

But perhaps most pertinently of all, given the Liberal Democrat surge, Brown could have gone much further in drawing up a new constitutional settlement—including but not limited to a referendum on electoral reform—as a means of showing that his premiership represented a new—and counter-intuitive—departure from the Blair years. He did indeed contemplate just such a move, dispatching the minister Michael Wills to study the options. Sadly, however, he did not sustain the momentum, adding to the – partly unfair – reputation he acquired, especially with Liberal Democrats, for lack of interest in the issue.

For unless Labour do unexpectedly well on Thursday, it may have missed another opportunity for the kind of pluralist realignment of the left that many in Labour have long contemplated but too many have only started to think about when the going got tough, not to say desperate.

The real-life Cruddas, as it happens, falls into the first rather than the second category. Long a citadel of the party, his Dagenham constituency (now reorganised into Dagenham and Rainham) embodies as well as any in the country the history of Labour since the early part of the last century. His headquarters are in the Transport and General Workers' Union office just outside the sprawling Ford plant where 40,000 worked after the war, 12,000 when Blair came to power, and now around 4,000 in what is left, its internationally important high-tech engine plant.

A street is named after the pre-war Labour leader George Lansbury. To get to Cruddas's HQ you walk past "Ron Todd Close", named after the general secretary of the TGWU who once worked at Ford. It includes the largest council estate in Britain. But the base has changed dramatically; it is now a "micro-climate" in which, Cruddas says, "globalisation [is] ripping through a small community... patterns of de-industrialisation," immigration is an issue.

Traditionally cheap here, housing has become an urgent priority because of the shortage, exacerbating a threat from the BNP not to unseat Cruddas, but, in a worst-case scenario, to eat enough into his vote to let the Conservatives in.

Cruddas, one of Labour's most interesting MPs, didn't think it would happen. He was talking the day after Brown had been catastrophically caught on microphone describing Gillian Duffy as a "bigoted woman". Anybody who has been door to door with candidates in this election – in the West Midlands as much as Rochdale – has come across traditional Labour supporters notably similar to Mrs Duffy, and Cruddas confirmed that Dagenham is no exception. And he, like many others who watched it on television, thought the actual exchange between Mr Brown and Ms Duffy was "relatively mild. If you go canvassing in Dagenham, it gets a bit more lively than that, I can assure you".

Cruddas does indeed believe that Brown made a mistake by buying into "the whole Alan Greenspan model" but he also argues that his persistence in keeping Britain out of the Euro and the recapitalisation of the banks would in hindsight be shown to be "outstanding initiatives". But, he adds: "The trouble is, we're in that period where people want, I think, an alternative system designed, not just to fire-fight it – and arguably we haven't come up with that."

And on this, Cruddas – who is Labour through and through – ("for me it's a life sentence") says he agrees with the Liberal Democrats that the investment and retail banking should be broken up, adding for good measure: "I also share for example some of their views on tax justice. I also share some of their views on modern threats and nuclear weaponry. I also share some of their approaches to devolution ...

"Now the question is does that fit in with the future which is more fluid, which is about alliances around ideas which you cannot monopolise within formal party structures. I don't see that as heretical. Keir Hardie was a fantastic alliance-maker, with the suffragettes or with internationalism or with social liberals."

Whatever the outcome, this will be a transformative election. There is every chance that Labour will go into opposition and that the Conservatives will form a majority or minority government. Even if Labour comes second in vote share – as well, as it undoubtedly will, in seats – and manages to form a coalition, Labour would be hubristic not to realise that its monopolist hegemony could even be over for good.

If it comes third, all eyes, of course, will be on the leadership and manoeuvering over Brown's future and that of his possible successors. But in fact, depending on the result, and the capacity of some of some Labour MPs to defend their majorities—not least against the Lib Dems - in what could be a second election within quite a short period, the party itself could find itself under existential threat. Having changed itself in the 1990s it will surely need to change again.

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