Donald Macintyre: Labour's leadership needs the stamp of a genuinely new era

Labour needs to occupy the Opposition benches with its taste for power intact, as it failed to do after Thatcher's victory in 1979

Share
Related Topics

So this is how it ends. As the outgoing Prime Minister kicked his heels in Downing Street waiting for the Clegg-Cameron negotiations to end, his ally-turned-enemy-turned-ally again Lord Mandelson went to Buckingham Palace ahead of him to chair his last meeting of the Privy Council as Lord President, to secure the Royal signature on such momentous legal instruments as an amendment to the charter of Goldsmiths College and the Red Meat Industry (Wales) Measure. With such Merrie England panoply the 13-year-old era of New Labour drew towards its stately close, last night's gracious resignation statement by Gordon Brown, and his own last visit to the Palace as Prime Minister.

Now Labour has to relearn the habits – once all too ingrained – of opposition. And to do so after a surreal 24 hours of national uncertainty as Britain seemed to swing wildly between the prospect of being a social democratic country or, as it has turned out, an unprecedented hybrid of conservatism laced – we still don't quite know how strongly – with liberalism. And it did so with a kind of melancholy relief that the agony was over, on a day when several of the Labour equivalents of grandees queued up to assert that the time had come to leave the field and acknowledge defeat.

The stance of the Jack Straws, John Reids and David Blunketts is hardly new. No currently active politician knows more about what it is like to go from government to opposition in a hung parliament than Kenneth Clarke, who was a whip in Edward Heath's government when it left office in February 1974.During the 2010 campaign he reminisced, prophetically as it now seems, about how it fell to him to sound out Tory parliamentarians as Heath – like Mr Brown 36 years later in second place – was desperately trying to bring Jeremy Thorpe's Liberals on board. One "sensible old boy", the backbencher Kenneth Lewis, had told him bluntly: "You tell that prime minister of ours that he has just lost the election and he should go with dignity."

To his credit, Mr Brown, by his clear statement on Monday, had removed any lingering sense that Heath-like he was remaining in No 10 for the sake of preserving his own premiership. Of course there were arguments for letting go; to attack the deficit will be a formidable enough task without having to assemble a fragile overall parliamentary majority each night. But either way the tantalising and subversive moment when it seemed that the electoral arithmetic could be used to deliver a left-of-centre government passed almost as quickly as it had arrived.

Which does not mean that Labour can relax. For that same arithmetic means that Labour needs to occupy the Opposition benches with its taste for power intact, as it signally failed to do after Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979. It is not only that she had an overall majority and David Cameron's Conservatives do not; it is also that the combination of searing ideological division and rebarbative policies on defence and the economy, from which the party took more than a decade to recover, is mostly no more than distant memory.

Labour, in other words, has a chance of winning the next whenever it comes, under a new leader. And it needs to be ready when the moment arrives. Nor is it easy to see, when a general election takes only four weeks, why a leadership contest should take as long as three months.

Which means in turn that the conduct as well as the content of the leadership election is of paramount importance. First, it will need to bear the stamp of a genuinely new era. The big figures, the ruling quadrangle as it seemed for much of the last 13 years – Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – would surely do well to keep out of it, signalling by their absence from the fray that a new generation is taking over. And secondly, that the habits of gang warfare – too prevalent for much of the last 13 years – will surely need to be banished.

It's hard to believe that the party will forgive revival of the dark arts of denigratory briefing, often through a right-wing press which will gratefully lap it up, during a contest of incalculable importance to Labour's future. For each one of the candidates will have to remember that the party is on show to the electorate; it does not have the luxury, as it did for much of the Eighties, of waging civil war secure in the knowledge that it was not a serious alternative government.

By making it clear last night that he was resigning forthwith as Labour leader, Mr Brown signalled that it will begin immediately. For much of the day he had waited in Downing Street, not the squatter he had been depicted as, but by now more like a prisoner awaiting his release. It came just after 7.15pm. The era that began on 1 May 1997 was over.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An Indian bookseller waits for customers at a roadside stall on World Book and Copyright Day in Mumbai  

Novel translation lets us know what is really happening in the world

Boyd Tonkin
 

Nature Studies: The decline and fall of the nightingale, poetry’s most famous bird

Michael McCarthy
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine