Alan Watkins: New Labour awaits a new messiah

Harold Wilson improved the party's prospects and Tony Blair changed its nature, but there's now a vacancy
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The Independent Online

Some time after the Labour Party's defeats in the 1980s, The Spectator (a less strident Conservative organ in those days) published an article on the lines: Can Labour ever win again? It was by Lord Skidelsky, best known for his lengthy biography of J M Keynes. The firm answer was No.

The life peer asked the question when on his way from the SDP to the Conservatives. Which part of his journey he had then reached I have now forgotten. In any case it does not greatly matter. The short point is that a respected public intellectual (to use the United States term) was able to make a coherent case that the Labour Party was over, finished, done for.

We had been there before. In the post-Suez of the later 1950s, Labour under Hugh Gaitskell confidently expected to win the 1959 election. As things turned out, the Conservatives under Harold Macmillan (the subject of a masterly new biography by Charles Williams) were returned with a huge majority.

The victory came as a tremendous shock to the Labour system. Earnest enquirers asked: Can Labour win? Or, alternatively: Must Labour lose? Several books or pamphlets were published on the subject. The leading theoretician of the party, indeed, of the whole of politics at this point – Anthony Crosland – pronounced that certain changes would have to come about rapidly. The emphasis would be on modernity and change.

The dispute inside the party was proceeding merrily on its way when Gaitskell died. Harold Wilson succeeded him, providing his own version of the Promised Land by means of the slogan Science and Socialism. The consequence was that Labour won the 1964 election.

Most observers thought Labour would win more easily than by the four seats that turned out to be the case. The moral is that, in 1959, people were saying that Labour would never rule again but, by 1962 (the year of the Orpington by-election), there was virtual unanimity that the Conservatives would shortly suffer a crushing defeat.

The story of the Labour triumph in 1997 is more complicated. The party could have won in 1992. Indeed, most people expected it to win. The leader of the party, Neil Kinnock, certainly expected it. Did Lord Kinnock, as he later became, create a new party? I do not think he did. He helped to change the party. But then, so did Peter Mandelson, and several others engaged in more or less the same line of business. But it was still the same party.

It was continued, not so much by other means, under John Smith as by exactly the same means. There was a small skirmish where the conservatives, what might be called the Stuckists, adopted the slogan One More Heave, a reference to the recently lost election, while the radicals did not know quite what they wanted. Smith stayed with the consolidators, except over the reform of the party constitution.

The change in the nature of the party came with the arrival of Mr Tony Blair. Wilson did not change the party but changed its political prospects. Mr Blair changed both its prospects and the nature of the party. Mr Gordon Brown finds himself presiding over a last phase, in much the same way as James Callaghan did in 1976-79.

To compile a sort of balance-sheet of the Callaghan and Brown years would be an exercise in false accounting. Even so, I would not have expected Jim Callaghan to have a spirited, independent-minded MP deselected for allowing his daughter to live in his flat, so bringing about the loss of a previously secure government seat.

I once spent some time in the Norwich South constituency. It was during the 1964 election. The Labour candidate was a friend, Christopher Norwood, who won the seat and remained an MP until 1970; he died young in 1972. I remember the enormous number of council houses in both the South and North part of the constituency.

While the South was wobbly (it had been represented, for a time, by the Tory minister Geoffrey Rippon), the North was solidly Labour. It changed, for a time, in the 1980s. Even so, Mr David Cameron paid half a dozen or so visits to the constituency. He was about the place on polling day itself.

It was the great rugby coach Carwyn James who advised his charges on the British Isles tour of New Zealand in 1971: "Get your retaliation in first." He was a gentle, scholarly man. But that is by the way. The functionaries of the Labour Party have evidently decided to get their own excuses in first.

The circumstances, we were told, were different. So they were. But they were brought about ... I was about to write "by the obstinacy of Mr Brown". It tends to trip off the pen, along with "pig-headed" and "will not listen to advice". But it was not as if Mr Brown had been determined to pronounce a sentence of life imprisonment on a largely innocent prisoner in the form of Dr Ian Gibson. It was, rather, that Mr Brown did not have the vaguest idea of what he was meant to be doing.

The precedents I cited earlier – Wilson in 1963 and Blair in 1994 – may be comforting to some MPs, though there are not many of them still around on the Labour benches.

To any hopeful survivors, I bring no comfort at all. Wilson was a new leader, who was opposing a tired Tory administration. Mr Blair was a new leader likewise, who was against a government which seemed to be even more incompetent than it really was.

The wisdom of the wise is that nothing ever happens during a parliamentary recess. In fact quite a lot can happen. There was the outbreak of war in 1939 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In September 2006 there was the email plot against Mr Blair which led to his departure in the following year. The long recess leads Satan to provide work for idle hands.

After the last crisis just before the reshuffle when Mr Brown kept his job, and Lord Mandelson appeared in front of our wondering eyes like a god from the party machine, we, or some of us, breathed a sigh of relief. We should have a rest until, say, November and the speculation could begin again.

Now along comes the Norwich North by-election. In the few weeks before the contest, all kinds of extravagant predictions were being made: that the Greens would come second or, more likely, that it would be the Liberal Democrats. In reality the result was more alarming for Labour. The party suffered a straight defeat at the hands of the Tories.

It may be that Mr Alan Johnson would do something to raise the Government a few points in the opinion polls, at any rate for a couple of months. In any case, the electorate would not be prepared to have yet another prime minister imposed on them. But I doubt whether he or anybody else can win the election for Labour.

Just as Mr Blair created a new party, so somebody else will have to invent a replacement for New Labour.