Steve Richards: Where have all the big beasts gone?

Even when Labour was slaughtered in 1983, it had a galaxy of stars and potential leaders

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Who was your political star of the year? At the end of each year the presenters of Radio 4's Week In Westminster are asked to name their stars of the previous 12 months. I was on the panel last Saturday and could not come up with an answer. The others struggled too. A panellist cited Harriet Harman to tentative nods of approval. Another mentioned the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. That was more or less it.

The problem is the question and not the answers. It implies there are great epic figures battling it out over the big issues and our task is to pluck out one from an entire galaxy. In reality, the sky is clear.

Shortly before he died, Roy Jenkins noted that political journalism was something of a repetitive challenge when there were only two significant figures, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He compared the barren landscape with the 1970s and 1980s when a columnist or a panellist could reflect on the activities of Tony Benn, Tony Crosland, Denis Healey, David Owen, Shirley Williams, Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph, Michael Heseltine and, of course, Jenkins himself. There were big, interesting, charismatic figures not only holding the stage but also representing, and in some cases defining, important ideological positions.

Now we contemplate a possible era where David Cameron and George Osborne will mirror the dominating Blair/Brown duopoly and Labour will face a leadership crisis because it has no leaders. Even when Labour was slaughtered in 1983 it had an army of potential leaders, a galaxy of stars.

Ocasionally, I read that before long we will be reminiscing longingly about the great, charismatic titans in the Labour cabinets since 1997. Where are the Robin Cooks, Claire Shorts, David Blunketts, John Prescotts, we shall ask nostalgically. I understand the argument and ask the question most weeks in relation to Cook. Where is he? His resignation speech on the eve of the war in Iraq was one of the few great moments of courage and dissenting assertiveness in the New Labour era. But the distinctiveness proves the wider point. According to Blunkett's diaries, he and his colleagues could hardly bear to go into the Commons to listen to Cook's speech, thinking his words an act of betrayal.

The cabinets since 1997 have been the weakest and least interesting since 1945. This is partly because there are few ideological debates contested in public to attract interesting figures, or create them. There are important differences within parties and between them, but they are largely hidden.

The divisive noisiness of the titans in the 1970s and 1980s has led to a fear of politics as a feast of clashing ideas. Now there is largely silence, punctuated occasionally by displays of managerial competence or incompetence. After the failed coup against Brown in the summer, one senior minister told me he and his colleagues would be livelier because they were suddenly stronger. On the whole, most have opted for quietly getting on with their jobs.

Similarly, some members of the shadow cabinet fume in private about their marginal involvement. In public they are happy to be involved at all, like members of Labour's shadow cabinet in the run-up to 1997 who, on one occasion, attended a Blair press conference in order to applaud when he had finished speaking, the limit of their contribution at that particular gathering.

It is often suggested that the managerial culture of British politics reflects a settled consensus after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of Thatcherite orthodoxy in the 1980s. This never made much sense and makes none at all now. From climate change to the recession and on to Britain's place in the world, there are huge, contentious challenges, at least as great as those facing politicians 30 years ago.

The public debate is banal because of low self-confidence in both the bigger parties, the reason for their determined evasiveness. They tend to prefer bland terms such as "progressive" and "modern", applied so often they are meaningless. Cameron is clearly a leader on the right; Brown is on the left. Both prefer to be seen as progressive. I can tell within 10 seconds whether someone is on the left or right and it tells me quite a lot about that person. I work on the assumption that virtually everyone is progressive and it tells me nothing. A message that conveys nothing is often one that dominates the build-ups to election campaigns.

The terror of clear definition reflects the fact that Labour's senior figures assume England is essentially a Conservative country and, after three defeats, quite a few senior Conservatives regard Britain as a land that tilts leftwards. Both fear they are out of step; in order to reassure the electorate they compete to give away power. The theme of Blair's leadership was one of losing control, even though he was regarded wrongly as a control freak. Blair gave away powers to Scotland, Wales and London. He lost control of British foreign policy when he signed up to America's timetable for war in Iraq. An absurdity of the Chilcot Inquiry into the war is the pretence that Britain had choices on its own: Blair should have given Blix more time! Blair should have delayed until the post-war planning was more thorough! Blair was in no position to ring up President Bush and tell him to scrap his military timetable. He'd lost control voluntarily.

Similarly, the supposedly Stalinist Gordon Brown gave up the power to set interest rates in 1997. Cameron and Osborne plan to go much further in losing control. Their Office for Budgetary Responsibility will determine acceptable public spending levels. Elected local police chiefs will decide crime policies. An independent NHS board will run the health service. If he wins, some of Cameron's ministers will seem busier than they really are as they adapt to policies based on an assumption that politicians are so unpopular they better not do very much.

In the build-up to the election there will be the same familiar exhortations and pledges made as if the winner will pull all the strings. Yet the aspirant rulers have never been more constrained and choose to be even more trapped than they need to be. Stars will struggle to shine for some time to come.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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