Alan Watkins: Mr Darling is the hero of the hour

The Chancellor is the last piece of the good ship New Labour that is still afloat – just
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The Independent Online

After the decline and fall of New Labour, three Labour victories and the most disastrous war of recent times, we remember a steep increase in the duty on cider. We remember too a rise in National Insurance contributions. The hero of the hour, if that is what he can be called, is Mr Alistair Darling.

He resembles a piece of the good ship New Labour that is still afloat, just about. The struggling crew are clinging to the wreckage. He is like a Scots lawyer (which is, after all, what he is) who tells the assembled family that, with a little saving here and there, they can just about manage to get by. But there is worse, much worse to come. It will be worse still if Mr David Cameron gets in.

The reply to the Budget is the most difficult speech a leader of the Opposition has to make. The reason is that he does not have any advance notice, as he (or she) is usually given. Mr Cameron contented himself with what the libel lawyers call "vulgar abuse", which is what the politicians usually do.

Mr Cameron cannot really be blamed. By the beginning of May he may be in office himself. He does not want to make the voters' flesh creep. It may be said – several observers have already said – that Mr Cameron "failed to rise to the occasion".

But what sort of occasion was it, with an election only weeks away? The new Chancellor would quickly introduce a new Budget, as several occupants of the office did in previous decades. Indeed, an emergency Budget from Denis Healey was a regular feature of the political year.

Even so, Mr Cameron did not exactly cover himself with political glory. And Mr Darling put up a better show than could reasonably have been expected. This, however, is commentators' chat. Most people do not know or care who is up or who is down. Even the opinion polls are a suspect guide.

By the end of the week, the Tories were becoming worried again. At the beginning, Labour was in a state of complete demoralisation. The disgrace of three former cabinet ministers was almost like the sinking of the Titanic. It symbolised the end of an era, in this case the end of New Labour.

The papers have labelled the miscreant ministers as "Blairites". The description is not entirely accurate. I have always had a certain regard for Mr Geoff Hoon. He rose to prominence under John Smith as a young academic lawyer. He specialised in attacking the Maastricht treaty from a European point of view. He was ruined by Iraq, when he was minister of defence.

Ms Patricia Hewitt has an even longer history in the Movement. I remember at the 1979 Labour conference: "Comrades, give us socialism now." Poor old Jim Callaghan, who had just lost an election, did not have any intention of doing anything of the kind.

Ms Hewitt established a political liaison with Ms Harriet Harman. She then worked as press secretary to Neil Kinnock as leader of the Opposition before becoming an MP and occupying a succession of quite tedious cabinet posts. She liked to address an audience as if composed of backward infants.

For some reason, Mr Stephen Byers acquired an early reputation as a Blairite. He also found himself in embarrassments of one kind or another. I kept mixing him up with Mr Alan Milburn, a similar character, both of whom retired early from New Labour. Indeed, the sole survivor of those days is Lord Mandelson, though he might prefer to describe himself as "real" or "traditional" Labour, because he is proud of being the maternal grandson of Herbert Morrison.

Ms Hewitt and Mr Hoon were part of the conspiracy to get rid of Mr Gordon Brown. As well organise a conspiracy in a whipped-cream factory! But the people at No 10 have turned on those who subsequently let the side down with perhaps unnecessary zeal.

It is one thing to deprive someone of the party whip: not quite the same to throw someone off a Nato study group, as happened to Mr Hoon, on the insistence, it appears, of No 10. What does any of this have to do with Nato? But then, Nato is fighting in Afghanistan, which is even less to the purpose.

New Labour came about because of 18 years of Conservative government, and because of the temporary triumph of capitalism, which lasted from 1980 to 2008. Whether Labour forms another government or not – it looks unlikely to me, despite the Tory panic of the last few days – the Labour Party will have to regroup. At the moment it is a pretence of a political party.

Partly this was the result of social and industrial changes. Partly it was a change the party imposed on itself: or, rather, it was a change which Mr Tony Blair and his entourage imposed on the party.

For instance, there used to be a perfectly good chairman of the Labour Party elected annually from the members of the National Executive Committee on the principle of Buggins's turn. It was almost a ceremonial role. His or her principal function was to preside over the annual conference. But following the 2001 election, Mr Charles Clarke was appointed party chairman. Mr Clarke then enjoyed the regard of Mr Blair. And Mr Blair wanted to add to the leader's power.

Throughout the party the pattern has been repeated. Decisions have been handed down and then either ratified or subjected to a bogus consultation exercise. The old Labour Party was built on meetings, resolutions, amendments: "Comrade Chairman, I move the reference back."

Part of this lingo came from the trade unions, in particular from Walter Citrine's ABC of Chairmanship. Part of it came from the House of Commons. And part of it came from what was thought to be lawyers' language.

It has mostly died away. And some people might add: and a good thing too. It encouraged verbosity, even pomposity. There was a comedy sketch of the 1960s in which the trade unionist said: "I must consult my executive." But it did ensure that matters were thoroughly discussed, and a decision arrived at, usually by means of a vote.

Mr Blair had a habit of exercising control from the centre. His early years in office were littered with the prone forms of those whom he had briefly favoured – candidates for Mayor of London, leaders of the Welsh Assembly – and then discarded or whom he had seen fall by the wayside.

Mr Brown's failing is that he clearly has no great affection for elections at all. He did not fight Mr Blair in 1994. His succession was uncontested in 2007. The fantasy is now current that Mr Brown will still be prime minister in June 2010, whether in alliance with the Liberal Democrats or, more unlikely still, proceeding under his own power.

If this last happened, Mr Brown would be received with acclamation and surprise. There might, however, be one or two voices of dissent, even in his own party. The only election he will ever have fought is the election he is about to contest in May.

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