Neal Lawson: Labour requires a different leadership

Brown could go back to being Chancellor and let someone else take the helm

Tuesday 13 May 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Never has the phrase "in sorrow not anger" felt more apt. Gordon Brown's long awaited but seemingly short lived premiership has left the non-Conservative parts of the nation disappointed and in despair. But betrayed? I doubt it.

While hope must always spring eternal on the centre-left, the reality is that after 10 years as second in command to Blair – Brown was always going to struggle to represent change over continuity and therefore always carried the potential to be doomed to the same fate as his predecessor. An initial flourish of sure footedness soon gave way to a mighty stumble. The refusal to hold the general election last October will go down as one of the single most important tactical errors in British political history. Tories I know within their head office feared it would spell the end of their Party. They honestly felt that Brown would have been returned with at least as big a majority and the Conservative would be split asunder between traditionalists and modernisers. Britain could then have been transformed into a much more modern social democracy. Instead hesitation won the day and the rest has been unmitigated disaster.

Ever since the responses have been both wrong and weak. Either dog whistle policies like last week's announcement by the Home Secretary urging police to harass the young or it's been micro-policy announcements like flexible working, important in themselves, but far from enough to stem the tide of loss of confidence or assert any meaningful new direction.

The bitter irony is that just as the economy and society demands greater public intervention – because of the credit crunch and the spread of the social recession – Brown in a panic pressed the rewind button back to the failed pro-market politics of Blairism. The default option won the day. But times have moved on. Don't take my word for it but David Cameron who said only last week "[We need] to tackle the causes, and not just the symptoms, of the big social problems that people today really care about ... entrenched poverty and inequality ... the lack of social mobility in Britain. ... the sense that our country may be getting richer, but the quality of our lives is getting poorer."

This is the terrain of the centre left – but tragically Brown seems incapable of escaping from the neo-liberalism straight jacket he and Blair donned after the crushing defeat in1992 which meant the interests of the market would always come first.

Steve Richards, this papers political columnist, recently boiled Brownism down to one succinct phrase, it was about "making capitalism work for the poor". Only the problem is that capitalism doesn't work for the poor. It works to create winners and therefore losers. It's the job of centre-left governments to ensure that accidents of birth do not blight the rest of people's lives. The market is singularly ill equipped to carry out such a task. The tragedy is doubled by the fact that Blairism no longer works even as an electoral strategy. Trying to push the Tories to the right under the assumption that the non Tory vote has nowhere else to go no longer holds on any level. The Tories refuse to play the game, and instead are leap frogging Labour to pose as progressives enabling Cameron to pick up middle class support. Meanwhile the core Labour vote, bemused and unloved, either stays in doors or finds another political home entirely. It creates a pincer movement of voting forcers that are decapitating New Labour.

Brown could still surprise us all. He could ride out the summer and come back afresh. He could face an obvious truth – that he is a much better Chancellor than Premier and go back to doing what he does best and let someone else take the national helm.

So Labour will continue in private and increasingly in public to ruminate on a change of leader. But it has been done once. It is not another face we need but a different future, it is not a change of leader that matters but a change of direction.

A conjuncture of desperation, weak opposition and a strong economy allowed the New Labour project to take a grip of the Party and the nation. But it was always going to unravel as the contradictions of a pro-capital ideology in a pro-Labour movement became apparent.

Only when Labour decides it wants to return to its historic mission – to make the economy work in the interests of society will the party rediscover the right balance between power and principle. It was done in 1945 and 1964. The potential was there in 1997. It is still to be fully realised through the birth of the democratic state – but probably not by Gordon Brown.

The writer is chair of the centre-left pressure group Compass (

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