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

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee