Alan Watkins: Even a new leader can't save Labour

Everything the Prime Minister touches turns to base metal and the government benches are in fatalistic mood
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The Independent Online

It was Mr Alastair Campbell who first formulated the 11-day rule. This was that, if a story in the papers lasted for this period, it was important, but that it was forgotten afterwards. By this test, the story about Mr Nick Griffin and the BBC had lasted longer than the allotted span. I am fairly sure that it will quickly be forgotten.

Most people, by the way, do not use "story" in the manner in which media folk commonly use it. The ordinary usage takes in fiction, even fantasy and exaggeration. Just so, one might say. It is an overlapping sort of word: what the late William Empson once called a type of ambiguity.

An account of Mr Griffin and the corporation was a story indeed, exaggerated in all respects. It has come to something – quite what I am not sure –when our two leading journals of liberal opinion can lead their front pages with a television programme of the utmost inconsequence. There it is. And with that we can pass on to other matters, such as the postal strike.

Those of us who were around in the 1970s remember the industrial unrest of 1978-79, when a hapless James Callaghan lost Labour the election to Margaret Thatcher. In fact this was neither wholly accurate nor entirely fair to Callaghan. But that version of history is what most people believe.

Similarly, many writers now say that the Profumo affair of 1963 "brought down" Harold Macmillan, the Conservative government of that day, or both: whereas Macmillan packed it in several months afterwards, and the Tories, under a new prime minister, went on for well over a year, and very nearly won the general election.

Likewise, the Labour government of 1979 did not lose the vote in the House of Commons because of the chaos of the previous winter, but because the Scottish Nationalists and a few others withdrew their support from a minority government. They did this because the Government was paralysed by the result of a referendum on Scottish devolution. Even so, there was a broad truth in the view that the unions "brought down" Callaghan; just as there was in the view that Profumo finished off Macmillian.

I read in the last couple of days that Mr Gordon Brown had tried to detach himself from the unions in the grand project of New Labour inaugurated by Mr Tony Blair and the present Prime Minister. This does not seem to me to be entirely correct. For the past 12 years and more, Mr Brown has tried to separate himself from Mr Blair over the unions. His friends and admirers – a declining band, but that cannot be helped – claimed that he enjoyed the warmest relations with assorted Terrys, Kevins and Daves. There was even a close connection with the apparatchiks of No 10 and one or two functionaries of the huge union Unison.

Before he became Prime Minister in summer 2007, Mr Brown cultivated this relationship. He did so because he wanted to detach himself from Mr Blair, and he indicated that he was really an old Labour man at heart. More than this, he wanted to secure a preponderance of union votes in the electoral college in any future contest for Labour leader.

As things turned out, no such election was necessary. Mr Brown was crowned by acclamation. It needed only a wreath of laurel to make the triumph complete. Alas! In September 2007, Mr Brown might have won a fourth victory for his party. Instead, he is looking at a Conservative majority of over 100, or so the opinion

polls now claim, which I must say I do not altogether believe.

But even by the most optimistic forecasts, from Mr Brown's point of view, Labour is heading for dry dock. It is perfectly reasonable to suppose that, with stormy waters in store, the good ship Cameron will have only four or five years on active service. But by then, Mr Brown will have other matters with which to occupy his attention. The question is: what does the Labour Party, what does Mr Brown, do now?

The standard answer, or answers, I have given already in previous columns. The Labour Party does not get rid of its leaders: the exception was George Lansbury in 1935. Still less does it replace its prime minister: the exception, semi-exception, was Mr Blair, who was succeeded by Mr Brown.

My own view is that, with Mr Brown having been imposed on the British public in the old Tory style, the voters would not be prepared to have another dubious character foisted on them without the intervention of a general election. But what could the poor old voters do about it?

They could, I suppose, simply refuse to vote for a Labour candidate in even greater numbers than they are threatening to do already. This is an attitude I find sympathetic. But it is probably lacking in realism.

Never underestimate the attractions of the new. Mr Brown was once new, as Prime Minster, in September 2007, when everyone now says he would have won (though I doubt it myself). Six months is a good period in which a new prime minister can play himself or herself in.

Do not undervalue Ms Harriet Harman. Whenever I mention her, my friends among the political editors and parliamentary sketch writers fall about with exaggerated hilarity. She would, they say, be the equivalent of Mr Michael Foot in 1983. But times have changed. Desperate times require remedies of last resort.

A six-month interval before a general election brings us to January and the new year. Mr Brown's period at No 10 has been marked by a series of tests imposed partly by himself (or those in Downing Street) and partly by others, chiefly in the newspapers. And so, we are told, such-and-such a by-election will prove crucial to the success of Mr Brown's government and to his future as Prime Minister. Or there is some other event upon which the wellbeing depends.

The by-election is duly lost; or the event refuses to take place, or turns out differently from what Mr Brown had expected. Mr Brown is surprised, or disappointed. Sorry about that, he says; try again; better luck next time. He is the Tommy Cooper of No 10; with the difference that the late comedian exercised considerable skill in his act.

Perhaps Mr Brown can inspire an underlying affection, as the magician did, though I doubt it. He has certainly had his share of bad luck. Recently, Mr Brown accepted Sir Thomas Legg's recommendation on MPs' expenses, as Mr David Cameron did likewise. The British public warmly applauded this application of lynch – or Legg – law. There was nothing to choose between Mr Cameron and Mr Brown in this respect. And yet the voters seem to disapprove of Labour MPs in relation to expenses more strongly than they do they Conservatives. Moreover, the Labour members are more discontented with their leader than the Tories are with theirs.

Labour expenses, combined with the postal strike, may just tip the balance against Mr Brown. But despite everything that is going wrong, I would not bet on it. In test after test, imposed by himself or by others on his behalf, Mr Brown fails, and he is still there. He is like one of those old-fashioned toys that have lead in their bottoms. But the Labour benches are in a fatalistic mood. To them, another prime minister would not make much difference – and a new one might even make things even worse.

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