John Rentoul: A defining moment for... humble pie

Honesty proved an effective form of spin at Glenrothes and the momentum is with Labour

Share
Related Topics

It just goes to show how difficult it is to write history while you are living through it. As well as losing my 50p bet on John McCain to win the US election, it may be that my early reaction to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers was wrong. That was the day, 15 September, that the credit crunch – previously a chewy abstraction rather than actually crunchy – suddenly made a loud cracking sound. I thought that it might be Gordon Brown's ERM, and not simply because of the coincidence that it was almost the same date – British membership of the European exchange rate mechanism was "suspended" on 16 September 1992.

It seemed that it would be the moment that Brown lost Labour's reputation for economic competence. It seemed implausible, on the face of it, that someone who made so much of prudence, yet who had borrowed in a boom so that there was little to fall back on in a bust, would benefit from the crisis. It seemed likely, on the other hand, that David Cameron would be the main beneficiary, even if he didn't strictly deserve it. After all, he had gone along with the borrowing, and was even committed to matching the Labour spending plans that he now derides as "irresponsible". But it isn't what oppositions do that matters in situations like this, as long as they avoid making fools of themselves. It is the Government and the Prime Minister on whom we focus.

This may yet be Brown's ERM, of course, albeit with a delayed reaction. Unlike the ERM, which had an immediate and catastrophic effect on the Major government's standing, the current crisis initially boosted Brown's popularity. Indeed, "Brown's bounce" ought to be a registered trademark of this paper. We used it first, reporting our ComRes poll of 21 September. Now Labour has won the Glenrothes by-election against expectations.

But I thought that it would be temporary, and that we ought to reserve the patent on "Brown's burst bubble" too. There is still an air of unreality about the recession, because job losses have not yet begun to bite and homes have not yet been repossessed in large numbers. I assumed that when the economic pain started to be felt, Brown would be unable to escape the blame. The famous media narrative, which sounds like Richard Dimbleby reading Jackanory somewhere up in the sky, would turn again. But that assumes that this is just a recession, a normal down of the up-down economic cycle. Labour would take the blame and the Conservatives would take the credit for the ensuing upturn. A bit like 1951, when Labour was punished for austerity and the Tories enjoyed 13 years of never having it so good.

What if, though, this is not "just a recession"? What if something more fundamental has changed? Some things are certainly different. To have nationalised a large chunk of the British banking sector is something that not even the Attlee government sought to do. And the Glenrothes result was so striking that it is possible that something big is happening. I do not believe that Labour campaign managers were engaged in expectations management when they said that they thought that the result would be close. I don't for a moment believe that Brown has abolished spin, but sometimes the best form of spin is to tell it straight, and I think that they thought that it would be close.

Of course, it is "just" a by-election. And, as Brian Brady, who has the advantage of having been there, reports on page 47, there were local factors: a strong Labour candidate, running as the opposition to the Salmond Narcissist Party on the local council and in the Scottish Parliament. Fighting a by-election as the government party in England against Cameron's Conservatives might be rather different.

But Labour's increased share of the vote on a high turnout requires an explanation. The last time the governing party did that was the Beaconsfield by-election in 1982 when the Tories won and one A C L Blair lost his deposit. And that was in the middle of the Falklands war, which really was a political game-changer.

At the very least, the momentum and the initiative, those indefinable but vital forces in politics, are with Brown. In the only opinion poll in Glenrothes, in September, Labour and the SNP were tied on 43 per cent; in all recent by-elections, Labour has lost ground between the last opinion poll and polling day. The feeling that the bottom has fallen out of the Gordon Brown market is no longer there. The threat from David Miliband has receded and, even if Labour MPs start to worry about holding their seats again, more than one Blairite minister has observed to me recently: "You can't fight someone with no one."

So that solves the mystery of why Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, said, two weeks before Lehman Brothers went bust, that the economic times were the worst for 60 years. Brown needs things to be really bad in order to convince us that this really is a paradigm shift.

I am a paradigm-shift sceptic, and not just because it is a trendy bit of pseudo-scientific jargon. Tony Blair claimed so many turning points and defining moments that he must have been spinning in high definition by the end.

Similarly with Barack Obama: his election is significant and a cause for celebration, but it will not sustain some of the higher expectations that have been placed upon it. Turnout, for example, was not a record – about the same as four years ago, perhaps a point or two higher.

Usually, defining moments and turning points are rhetorical devices rather than real events. Usually, continuity is more important than change. It is more likely that we are entering a recession rather than the end of capitalism as we know it. It is still more likely that Gordon Brown is heading for defeat at the next election than for a coalition with Nick Clegg.

But what do I know? Not only did I think that John McCain would win, I am the one who wrote the leading article for The Independent after 9/11 saying that it was very sad for the families of those killed but it wouldn't change anything. Doh.

React Now

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

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices