Johann Hari: Stop these kamikaze attacks

Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn seem bent on demonising their next party leader
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The Independent Online

Wake up and smell the opinion polls. The rebranded, unreconstructed Conservative Party is teetering at the all-important 40 per cent line that constitutes a majority in our first-past-the-post quasi-democracy. Labour is lying in a catatonic daze eight points behind.

This means if there was a general election tomorrow, John Redwood - a man who brags about his "hatred" of public transport because it represents The State, and holds up Texas as a shimmering example - would be in charge of Britain's "competitiveness" policies, ranging from tax and spending to trade union rights. The network of brilliant Sure Start centres, built across Britain's council estates to ensure the children of the poor receive high-quality pre-school care and keep up with middle-class kids, would be shut down. The benefits cheques of the poorest people in the country would be slashed.

And the man who authored the Tories' 2005 election manifesto - with its pledge to make Britain the first country to abandon the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees created in the wake of the Holocaust, and to instead bang up asylum-seekers "on an island" - would be Prime Minister.

Some people seem to think the stakes of Labour losing are low, since the Tories have reinvented themselves as hug-a-hoodie liberals. But if you peel back the sweet sugary words, the Tories still advocate bitter policies. David Cameron has put a wind turbine on his house and emoted about global warming, but in his first speech as Tory leader he demanded "a massive road-building programme" - a guarantee of soaring carbon emissions and greater warming.

He waxes eloquent about the need for a work-life balance, but he calls for Britain to pull out of the EU Social Chapter that actually delivers it for millions of working mums and dads. I could go on and on. Don't fall for meaningless gestures like Cameron's apology for Thatcher's support for apartheid, a system of tyranny that fell 12 years ago. (What will he apologise for next, the Corn laws?) This road to Damascus is paved with lies.

But on the brink of this looming disaster, there is a kamikaze wing of the Labour Party which seems bent on demonising their next leader, and setting ever-higher right-wing hurdles for him to leap over in order to demonstrate that he is not some kind of Bennite headbanger.

These crash-and-burn pilots hurtling towards Number 11 Downing Street are Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn. It takes nuclear-strength chutzpah for them to lecture to Brown at all, given they are notoriously two of the most incompetent cabinet ministers of the past 30 years. Byers resigned in disgrace after lying to parliament and creating a post-Railtrack transport system that was even more garbled than the catastrophic Tory privatisation programme. SUV-driving Alan Milburn had a brief spell as health secretary (before scuttling off to work for firms directly profiting from Labour's healthy policies), in which he had one achievement - negotiating a notoriously disastrous new package of contracts for GPs that led to the NHS crisis earlier this year.

Yet still they speak as if they were sages, with Byers demanding last week Gordon Brown demonstrate his safeness for the middle class by handing them a £4bn cash bonanza through the abolition of inheritance tax. This is a policy direct from the George W Bush playbook, a man who has strived for the eradication of the "death tax" for six years.

In reality, a bare minimum for qualifying for life on the centre-left is a belief in taxing the unearned privilege of the rich. Why should somebody be handed a house or millions of pounds they have done nothing to earn? For Byers to choose this, of all things, as a "Clause Four" for Brown to adopt early in his premiership is a sign of how unmoored he has become from anything even vaguely progressive.

This mindless destructiveness is a reminder of Byers' and Milburn's origins on the hard left, where they showed a similar reverence for the Dear Leader and a similar fondness for facile slogans. They have leaped from Militant Tendency to Milburn Tendency, without ever pausing at the intermediate stage of believing in sane tax-and-spend social democracy.

Milburn and Byers constantly stress the need for Brown to reassure Middle England he is not Tony Benn. They're right about that - but it won't be very difficult, given that along with some good, genuine social-democratic policies like redistributing more cash to the poor, he is the architect of a clutch of right-wing ideas that make people like me gag: the public-private partnership for the Tube, Private Finance Initiative hospitals and schools that are a great deal for corporations and a lousy deal for the taxpayer, and even the suggestion that we should stress the positive elements of the British Empire.

Indeed, the only people suggesting he is Old Labour are Powellite headbangers like Simon Heffer and the Milburn-Byers hydra. Every time they call for him to demonstrate he is not Old Labour, they act as though it is a credible idea, rather than a risible right-wing confabulation.

Milburn and Byers also fail to see that Gordon Brown will have a parallel, trickier job: to re-energise the Labour Party and its core voters. Harold Wilson famously said "the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing", but most of its voters cannot see any morality in voting for John Reid-style bashing of asylum-seekers, or a government which will not even condemn George Bush's use of chemical weapons in Fallujah. The danger of a haemorrhage of voters to the Liberal Democrats is just as great a risk to Labour's marginal MPs as leakage to the Tories.

Although Brown is no knight in red shining armour, there are good parts of the Labour programme he will be able to emphasise and redouble in a way Tony Blair was never inclined to. The Government's pledge to eradicate child poverty in Britain by 2020 is being steadily implemented, and anybody who lives on a council estate knows there is considerably more cash for poor people with children today than there was a decade ago. (And contrary to the glib right-wing slurs, academic studies show the money is being spent on the children's clothes, food and education, not on fags and booze.) If Brown tossed this money away on tax cuts for the upper middle class, as Byers suggests, he would only repel the voters who abandoned Labour in 2005, without wooing back the ultra-privileged voters who would financially benefit and will always vote Tory.

The momentum today is towards a Tory victory. It is time for the Labour kamikazes to be decommissioned before they can give any more aid to the enemy.