Gerald Kaufman: It could be worse. The schoolboys could be in charge

Gordon Brown must show his detractors he has the experience and leadership – which the Tories lack – to handle a crisis
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On Friday morning, in my Manchester constituency, I visited a drop-in centre for people in trouble. As I was leaving, I told my hosts that later that day I would be seeing the Prime Minister. They instructed me: "Give him our love."

I duly delivered the message to Gordon Brown, who was opening a new school in my constituency, a state-of-the-art college whose construction was made possible by this government's policies. During his tour of the gleaming premises, the Prime Minister was everything that his detractors say he can never be: charming, witty, clearly interested in the pupils and what they were being taught – everything that he needs to be in his conference speech on Tuesday.

The slogan of the drop-in centre was: "Empathise Not Stigmatise." Its objective: "Turning lives around." Its alternating titles: "Turning Point/Crisis Point." As the Prime Minister applied himself to drafting his conference speech, the questions were, and remain: can he turn around the prospects of the Labour Party and his own leadership? Will the speech be his turning point?

The problem for him, and for his party, is that Labour has had it so good for so long that, for backbenchers unused to having doors slammed in their faces, adversity comes as an unpleasant surprise. Two-thirds of Labour MPs have never sat on the opposition side of the House of Commons. They are, unprecedentedly, in the 12th consecutive year of Labour government. A number of them, having held ministerial office for a while and then been removed from it, rediscovered their vibrant, aching socialist consciences the moment their bottoms hit the backbenches. They have become rent-a-quotes, preening themselves when their little-known names are attached to derogatory quotes by lazy journalists doing their routine ring-rounds of the usual suspects: the First Wives' Club, as I call them.

Two years ago, when the so-called curry house plot forced Tony Blair to bring forward his planned resignation as Prime Minister, I warned Gordon Brown that those who were now hailing him as the party's prospective saviour would turn on him if he failed to give them the ministerial office for which they were sure fate had intended them. Similarly, I warn any presumptive successors of Brown that they too would be on the First Wives' Club's hit list if they failed to deliver the goodies.

Another group comprises some Labour MPs who already hold ministerial office. Any collection of people will run a gamut of talents, ranging from the supremely competent to the relatively useless. The ones I have it in for are those ministers who forget they are holding office only because they are Labour MPs, who believe they have a God-given (rather than prime minister-bestowed) right to office, and fail to bring a moiety of political acumen to their duties.

They simply say what their civil speechwriters draft for them, act on civil service briefs as if they were the Ten Commandments, and are worse than a waste of space. They drag the Government down, and dispensing with their services could be an advantage.

The problems Gordon Brown faces in this conference week are simple to summarise but less easy to solve. Because this Government has been in office so long, not only the Labour Party but also millions of electors take for granted the huge, indeed, historic achievements that did not exist before Labour took office on 2 May 1997. The national minimum wage, the implementation of the EU's Social Chapter, the winter fuel payment for pensioners, free bus passes, free TV licences for over-75s, the huge reductions in NHS waiting lists, lower interest rates, the New Deal for the unemployed, lower overall unemployment rates, reductions in crime and increases in numbers of police, reductions in the size of primary school classes, the first ever legislation to combat climate change and unprecedented sums of money provided for developing countries by a Department for International Development.

More specialised reforms have brought brighter life prospects for large numbers of people. New legislation for gay people, from the repeal of Clause 28 to civil partnerships, have implemented rights for minorities that used to be derided. The repeal of the Tories' odious Primary Purpose rule and appeal rights for visitor visas have made life less burdensome for ethnic minorities.

A reaction by many may be: this is so b-o-o-oring. Yet these achievements have transformed the lives of millions and, it needs saying over and over again, so many of them were opposed by the Tories, who now pretend to be touchy-feely but would revert to grim type if they ever became the government again.

So that is part of the turning-point message that needs to come from Gordon Brown this week. Another key component is Labour's vision for Britain's future, which must be at the same time clear, precise and idealistic.

The third is simple competence. Yes, Labour has made its mistakes – mistakes such as the 10p income tax rate whose disadvantages were so deliberately highlighted by the First Wives' Club. Yet the Labour Government's handling of the current global financial crisis shows the competence for which Gordon Brown was respected as chancellor. Can anyone seriously imagine the schoolboy duo of Cameron and Osborne measuring up to such a challenge? Do me a favour.

Perspective is essential in analysing the current political situation. Yes, Labour's opinion-poll ratings are awful. Yet, in 1990, Labour, led by Neil Kinnock, was 22 per cent ahead of John Major's Tories. Two years later, Major beat Labour by 8 per cent. If Harold Wilson was right in saying that a week is a long time in politics, then 18 months and more, the time before the next general election must come, is an aeon.

This week's conference will show whether Labour and Brown can turn the situation around, or whether the Tory press and the First Wives' Club will turn out to be right. I find in my own Gorton constituency Labour Party a determined loyalty combined with a yearning for the party and the leadership to get back on track.

Sir Gerald Kaufman is Labour MP for Manchester Gorton and a former shadow cabinet minister