Alan Watkins: All we need now is an old-fashioned crisis

Voters regard Brown as a throwback to an older way of doing politics, but he is just as much a part of New Labour as Blair
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Over the years, many well-intentioned people (and some less so) have invested a good deal of political capital in Mr Gordon Brown. After the party conference of 2006, when Mr Tony Blair announced his intention of departing before this year's conference, the traffic became particularly heavy. The proximate cause of that year's stirring events, it is often forgotten, was the war in Lebanon, and Mr Blair's continuing support for the United States in that unhappy part of the world.

Quite suddenly, even though the moment had taken several years to build up, the Labour members decided that they had seen enough of Mr Blair. It was a delayed reaction to the votes on the war in Iraq. Who knows? The legislators may have felt ashamed of themselves. High hopes were reposed in his almost certain successor, as much in the columns of the progressive press as on the backbenches of Westminster.

These hopes persist to this day, with a particular concentration of them among the women writers of The Guardian. They might be called Mr Brown's Foolish Virgins. I refer to their political innocence rather than to their experience in other matters. Their honorary president is Roy Hattersley, a regular contributor to the same newspaper as, indeed, he is to many others, too numerous to list conveniently.

For Lord Hattersley I possess the warmest regard. I have known him for almost longer than anyone else in political or journalistic life, ever since we met at a Labour students' conference in 1954. Ten years later, I helped inaugurate his glittering writing career by suggesting to The Spectator (where I was then working) an article on Sheffield entitled "The Name on the Knife Blade". He has not looked back since. And he was a perfectly good deputy leader of the Labour Party.

For most of Mr Blair's period at No 10, Lord Hattersley did not write or speak kindly of him. Why should he have done? He was out of sympathy with New Labour and the Project. He looked back to his intellectual mentor even his hero Anthony Crosland, with his over-arching belief in equality.

Mr Blair did not believe in this. Indeed, even in Neil Kinnock's day, Lord Hattersley was rebuked for using the word "equality". The Labour leader's press officer at the time, Ms Patricia Hewitt, instructed: "The preferred word is 'fairness'."

It is perfectly true that Mr Brown wrote a new introduction to Crosland's reissued work The Future of Socialism. It was timed for the 2006 conference and was designed to emphasise Mr Brown's Labour, or even socialist, credentials. It seems to have done the trick with Lord Hattersley. I take him for purposes of illustration merely. For people have an urge not only to treat Mr Brown differently but to regard him as a representative of an older and better way of going about politics. In reality, he is as much a part of New Labour or of Mr Blair's former regime as Mr Blair ever was. It is even arguable that tendencies which were present in Blairism have become intensified.

For example, one of Mr Blair's first ideas was that of the "big tent" or, as the old American hymn used to put it: "Come and join us." In his new government, Mr Brown pushed his principle of inclusivity to ridiculous lengths.

He even appointed a Tory MP, Mr Patrick Mercer, as an adviser on defence matters The opposition retaliated by giving Mr Mercer a similar job: a bit like sending two gunboats, one for each side. The former CBI director Digby Jones did not even take the preliminary precaution of joining the Labour Party and, indeed, successfully insisted on staying out. Lord Malloch-Brown was given a job at the Foreign Office and was put up to speak immediately at the Labour conference, almost before his membership card was out of its envelope.

What most of these appointments have in common is a tendency to honours-list syndrome the selection of names to fit a headline combined with a desire to offend as many ordinary party members as possible. It is not, however, entirely fair to blame Mr Brown for the fiasco in political funding that has come about before our wandering eyes over the past couple of weeks.

Most of the arrangements for private covenants and the like were put in place in Mr Blair's time. Mr Brown was busy with other matters. But then, Mr Blair was busy too. What has happened is that there has grown up a whole New Labour sub-culture of nods, winks, nudges and documents that are either mislaid or not written down in the first place.

For most of the past century, and for part of the century before that, the Labour Party and the trade unions went out of their way to try to conduct business properly. Poor and self-educated people were sometimes mocked for their efforts. "Comrade chairman, I move the reference back." "Are you speaking to the motion or the amendment?" "I must consult my executive." The language is as antiquated as a steam-hammer. And yet, the Labour Party has lost something, as much as it has in government as it has in the details of party organisation.

At the same time, we must not be sentimental about the past. Mr Brown has at last come round to accepting that there should be an upper limit to the contributions of donors. I listened to last Tuesday's debate with every expectation, not of being edified for that would have been too much to expect but at any rate of being better informed. The only bright spot of the afternoon was Sir Gerald Kaufman's attire as the Mayor of Miami Beach. Otherwise the Labour backbenchers yelled "Ashcroft" (from the generous peer of that name), while the Tories shouted "Unions" in reply. When politics come in conflict with rules, politics always win. That was why disputed elections were transferred from Parliament to the High Court.

But there is a genuine problem because of the structure of the Labour Party. There are still two categories of member: individual members and affiliated members, of whom the unions have the highest proportion. They pay affiliation fees, additional to and separate from campaign contributions or other disbursements. Mr Blair would have liked to sever the connection completely; Mr Brown is more cautious.

There were few signs last week of a real Labour Prime Minister in Mr Brown. But then, what were we looking for in the first place? Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Ramsay MacDonald? In a restricted field, only C R Attlee is in front together with Tony Blair.

As it is, Mr Brown's government has come up with a new 42-day detention period for suspected terrorists, presumably on the principle of thinking of a number and adding 14. And Mr Jack Straw is going to construct huge prisons to bring a warm glow to the late J V Stalin's heart. All we need now is a good, old-fashioned economic crisis. Now, that really would bring back memories of Labour Prime Ministers of long ago.