Stepping back from it all for a moment, the biggest shock in relation to the Glasgow East by-election is that no one is really shocked at all. Labour has been performing abysmally in local and by-elections for several years now. Glasgow is part of a trend and not a mad aberration, another earthquake on ground well used to eruptions.
The result confirms, rather than reveals, that Labour faces a nightmarish onslaught from an informal coalition of parties, the SNP in Scotland, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in England. This is similar to the forbidding anti-Labour coalition that kept the party out of power for18 years in the 1980s and 1990s. Wherever Gordon Brown and his demoralised troops move on the electoral map there is a new, vibrant enemy ready to wipe them out: a Cameron here, a Salmond there, and possibly a Clegg here and there too.
For Labour this is the precise reverse of the mid 1990s when it led an anti-Conservative coalition, striding hand in hand with the Liberal Democrats and others to demolish an unpopular Tory government. Labour has completed the circle and returned to the electoral dynamics of the 1980s.
In some ways the party's position is more precarious now than it was then. Towards the end of the exile in opposition Labour's membership grew. Even in the party's dark days of landslide defeats there was always a hint of energy, sometimes destructive energy, from the bottom to the top, with a range of stars in the shadow cabinet and a membership spurred on at least by a loathing of the Thatcher government.
Now there is virtually nothing. On Thursday night I went to sniff the political air outside Westminster, attending a meeting in Birmingham organised by the Blairite Progress group and the more leftish Compass organisation. A common theme was the near-fatal decline in party membership. There was much talk also about how Labour was broke financially compared with the millions pouring into the Conservatives' coffers. This was on Thursday evening. Many said at the meeting that their only hope was that Labour might win Glasgow East. I wonder what their mood is now.
How has a party that won easily three successive elections reached such a point so quickly? There is one obvious answer. The fact that it is obvious should not undermine its potency. Labour is being punished for the economic downturn. As a long-serving former chancellor, Brown is the perfect figure on whom voters can target their anger. Currently he is trapped in a double whammy, being blamed for higher mortgage, oil and food prices at the same time as these have changed perceptions of his past record as chancellor.
No elected leader of the Western world survived the increase in oil prices in the 1970s. At the very least it is safe to say that no British prime minister will win by-elections in the middle of a downturn. Voters will take the opportunity to give them a kicking. I do not believe Labour can win a by-election anywhere in the country at the moment.
But the reasons for Labour's decline are deeper than the economic situation, and deeper, too, than Brown's leadership. One Blairite cabinet minister admitted to me years ago, shortly before the 2001 election, that New Labour's support was broad but shallow. At the time of this perceptive observation, the emphasis was on the broad. Labour won a landslide shortly afterwards. But it was never going to take much for the shallowness to manifest itself. In blurring ideological dividing lines, in hiding behind the safety of apolitical technocratic language, New Labour built up a big tent of support, but there were always plenty of exits from the bulging canvas.
The danger of making competence a government's biggest selling point comes when the government is shown to be incompetent. Thatcher was forgiven for her monumental cock-ups because she appeared to be heading somewhere which a majority of voters thought they approved of. It has never been clear where New Labour was heading. Instead, it has had two leaders claiming to make "the long-term decisions" and acting in ways that were "the right thing to do". They are value-free claims to make. That is why the challenge for Labour is much bigger than simply changing a leader. It has to reinvent itself as a vibrant, more clearly defined party after more than a decade in power and at a time when its collective self-confidence is virtually non-existent.
For all the speculation about his future, Brown made a powerful start in addressing this daunting challenge in his speech yesterday to the party's policy forum in Warwick. It was the best he has delivered since becoming Prime Minister, delivered without notes, carefully structured, beginning and ending with accessible stories about people whose lives had been transformed through recent policies.
He spoke well in the darkest of contexts. At the moment there is only subdued panic in Labour's ranks. Many anxious, partially scheming ministers and MPs are on holiday already. But this autumn will be tempestuous with Labour's conference the most highly charged for decades.
If Brown does not rise to the occasion, then a change of leader becomes more likely. He is helped by the fact that the mechanics of changing a leader and the lack at the moment of an obvious alternative mean that the choreography is complex, risky and a diversion from the much bigger task of reinventing a centre-left party after more than a decade when only two individuals, Blair and Brown, pulled all the strings.
At the end of the meeting in Birmingham on Thursday night, I asked the packed audience whether any of them thought a change of leader would help their party's cause. Only one person raised his hand. Yet afterwards several members of the audience came up to me and said that privately they talked of little else.
They said they did not raise their hands because they feared a change would be even riskier, adding that if they had a clearer sense of which path was more, or less, precarious, many more would have raised their hands. In their agonised undemonstrative ambiguity they speak for many in the Cabinet and beyond.Reuse content