Greg Power: How Labour misses Robin Cook at this hour

There is opposition, but no one is offering an alternative around which it can gather
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The Independent Online

The first anniversary of Robin Cook's untimely death this Sunday falls at a poignant moment for Labour. In the last weeks of the parliamentary session, several MPs lamenting the domestic problems besetting the party had commented to me, "If only Robin were here now."

It is a view I have heard repeated several times. And the developments in the Middle East have reinforced the role he played as an authoritative and articulate voice for the progressive left, and sharpened the sense of loss.

The reaction to the Israeli-Lebanese conflict has revealed the lack of any political figure with the capacity to challenge the direction of government policy. Despite evidence of cabinet unease and mounting concern within the parliamentary Labour Party, criticism remains disparate and unfocused. There is opposition, but no one is offering an alternative interpretation of events around which it can gather. Instead, the Prime Minister is left with the much easier task of taking on his critics one at a time.

The Labour Party is poorer for this lack of collective voice. But so too is Tony Blair - although he would be unlikely to acknowledge it. During his speech last weekend he made a robust defence of his leadership style, suggesting that success lay in riding out criticism and meant that he had to "for heaven's sake, above all else, lead".

But leadership normally requires that people follow you. Unencumbered by the search for electoral popularity or a weighty political challenger, he is able to dismiss - or ignore - the political context of his decisions.

What Cook would be saying about current events is impossible to know, but that is exactly what made his presence so valuable. And exactly what the progressive left is missing. After his resignation, he offered a commentary on political events based on an exceptional grasp of detail allied to ideological belief, rather than any factional interest. Each new political development was measured against a core set of principles for ideological inconsistencies or flaws. The result was a complex and nuanced set of values, not always sitting neatly with the prevailing mood of the party. It meant that he was difficult to characterise, but it also meant that he was impossible to ignore.

It is perhaps on the domestic front that his presence will be missed most in coming months. Cook would have been pivotal during the transition from one Labour Party leader to the next. At a practical level, Gordon Brown's team is aware that his support would have provided a bridge to a sizeable chunk of the anti-war left that currently remains beyond the grasp of the Prime Minister-in-waiting.

But it is in the argument over ideas that his absence will be most keenly felt within the party. The last chapter of his memoir, entitled "Where do we go from here?", was a plea to his party to be more explicit about the values that motivate it. Although he occasionally disagreed with elements of government policy, he was more often frustrated by Labour's unwillingness to be more explicit about its principles, and in particular at the policy he described as "social justice by stealth". The failure to use its values to engage and mobilise voters would not only weaken the stability of the Government's achievements, he argued, but also Labour's broad electoral appeal.

For any political party, a leadership contest should be the time to debate openly the ideas that define it. This is especially so for Labour now. After 12 years of Blair's leadership a Labour government has rarely looked this bereft of guiding principle. The mantra that "what matters is what works" holds only for so long as it works. When it doesn't, it simply reveals the lack of direction.

Without any sense of ideology in difficult times government policies instead look populist and unprincipled. The handling of the education reforms, loans for peerages and the latest burst of tabloid-driven activity from the Home Office all highlight the weaknesses at the heart of the current administration. The party itself needs the chance to work out the sorts of policies and principles that should define Labour in government. Cook would have provided a vital indication of the issues that mattered for many in the party and wider Labour movement.

Yet so far the debate about the next leader has revolved almost entirely around the personalities of those involved. This may change as the transition looms, but at present no one is even attempting to define the key issues that the next Labour leader needs to address. And with Robin Cook no longer around, "Where do we go from here?" is a question all those on the progressive left should be asking themselves.

The writer was special adviser to Robin Cook, 2001-2003