All is not as quiet as it seems. Dissenters stir in the innocent tranquillity of high summer. What is more, those who are stirring in the erratic heat are disillusioned Blairites rather than the more familiar rebels who stay behind in August in the hope of getting their name in the newspapers. They are former loyalists who have agonised for several years about the timid failings of a government that they once supported with an energetic enthusiasm. Now they seek a new start under a new leader.
The cry of pain comes in the editorial of the latest edition of Renewal, a journal that is regularly described as 'Blairite'. Tony Blair is listed as being a member of the advisory board, although I suspect that his advice was not sought on this particular editorial. One of the authors is Neal Lawson who I recall meeting first during the 1997 election campaign. He was working at Labour's headquarters at the time and berated me for being too critical of Blair and New Labour, suggesting politely that I had not fully recognised that the prime minister-in-waiting was a true radical who would transform Britain.
I do not cite this meeting to taunt Lawson for his misplaced enthusiasm, but to demonstrate to those unfamiliar with this journal and its authors that they have not come to this view lightly. They do not like the culture of betrayal, where every Labour government is tormented with lazily formed accusations about how it has let everyone down. Even so they have got there in the end. They feel let down.
In their despair they have written one of the more intelligent analyses of what is happening and what has gone wrong. First, they acknowledge Labour will win the next election, but in a similar way to the Conservatives' ambiguous success in 1992: "The electorate may soon resent us and our fall in the next crisis could be sweeping. Unlike the Thatcherites we won't have transformed the political, economic and social landscape - despite the benefit of huge majorities, a pathetically weak opposition and a strong economy".
They argue that Blair has succeeded in marginalising the Conservatives, but only by moving to the right and taking up much of their terrain: "Sure we have power, but are denied the means to do anything purposeful with it".
The authors are the latest in a growing group that have made the cathartic leap. Instead of deploying vacuous euphemisms such as the "radical centre" and the "third way" they place Blair on the right of the political spectrum, warning that social democracy cannot take root in the shadow cast by neo-liberalism. Rightly they see through the false dividing line promoted in Downing Street between consolidators (Brownites) versus reformers (Blairites), dismissing Blair's agenda as a "bogus radicalism".
Yesterday Lawson told me that they had finally given up fooling themselves that Blair was capable of being a radical Prime Minister. They could write no more editorials along the lines of "Come on Tony, the time has come..." They know the time will not come.
But they are also fairly critical of Brown. While recognising that most of the social democratic successes of the government are down to the Chancellor, they are wary of his Euro-scepticism and question whether he has the will to shift the gravity to the left in Britain. Even so, they acknowledge that he has the potential to be a radical prime minister, a swing of sorts in the direction of Brown from previous devotees of Blair.
The authors of this editorial do not represent a vast pressure group. Their publication is not widely read. Yet they reflect the views of a significant group within the Labour party who were enthused by the more radical elements of early Blairism and assumed that Blair believed in them as well: a much more pluralist and open democracy; a robust belief in a public ethos and therefore in public institutions; a conviction that Britain's future lies as a constructive member of the European Union rather than as a subservient partner of the United States. Above all they believed that this was a country capable of responding to a more progressive leadership, not simply a conservative nation that would only tolerate a conservative Labour prime minister.
I should add that this is not the view of all those ardent Blairites who campaigned with such heady optimism in 1997. There is a now a significant divide between those who believe that Blair continues to represent a new and innovative third-way style of leadership and the disillusioned faction who have decided that enough is enough.
Like others who seek a change of direction, the former Blairites do not quite know what to do next. They will not campaign for a leadership contest and lack the means to do so. They would not ally themselves formally with dissenters further to the left of them. Like others they will seek to highlight a genuinely progressive policy agenda - not as easy as some dissenters suggest - and wait on events.
There is now a growing disparate group of influential figures in the Labour party that recognises Blair's style of leadership could destroy Labour as well as the demoralised and bewildered party led by Michael Howard. They include the familiar group of Labour MPs on the left, the followers of Gordon Brown, some trade union leaders and the disillusioned Blairites. There are no attempts to co-ordinate an insurrection and no overt leadership of the rebellious factions. All that can be said is that they are there, growing more frustrated and alarmed, ready to act when their ill-defined moment comes.
The looming general election largely explains their current paralysis. On one level it is an extraordinary position: 'The leader should go and we plan to do nothing about it". But the prospect of an election tends to deaden political thought and activity. Loyalty to a leader becomes paramount. Just before the summer break I had a conversation with a cabinet minister who I assumed would be an unequivocal Blair supporter. He said, "The election saves him. Otherwise he would be in a lot of difficulty. No one would forgive anyone rocking the boat now". That is the dilemma for those who have come to recognise the limitations of a Blair leadership. They know that if he wants to carry on there is not a lot they can do about it.
Even so, these dissenting voices are an important corrective to the glowing assessments before Blair departed for his holidays. Suddenly he was walking on water. The Westminster-based verdict arose from the failure of Michael Howard to land a punch over the Butler report and the publication of various five-year plans. It ignored the broader context, that parts of the Butler report were damning, Iraq was still imploding, and that quite a lot of the five-year plans were over-hyped.
With the Conservatives in disarray Blair was not as vulnerable as some had suggested earlier in the year. But nor was he entirely safe when he strode off for his holidays. The mid-summer stirrings are a portent of more trouble to come this autumn.Reuse content