No one in the Labour party now believes the next election is winnable. Last year, there were a few who believed in an outside chance of victory. There are still some who hope that some unexpected catastrophe might yet befall David Cameron. There will be a collective brave face put on by delegates who gather in Brighton next week — but this falls well short of genuine conviction. There is a difference between loyalty and delusion. This time, no one is in any doubt about the defeat in prospect.
A rabbit could, of course, be pulled out of the hat at conference. But there would be little point. The polls are even worse than they were before Peter Mandelson’s return to the Cabinet. The day before Gordon Brown gave Mandelson the job of Business Secretary, the Tories had a 12-point lead. This has now widened to 16 points. No government in postwar history has gone on from such a position, at such a late stage, to win an election.
All the arguments are expended. The party’s internal polling suggests that the British public still has no great affection for David Cameron, but this is rather cold comfort. It has never really been necessary for the electorate to love a Conservative leader in order to vote Tory — despair with the government can be enough.
Few voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 because she provoked genuine affection. They did so because their patience had run out with the Callaghan administration. No one voted for John Major in 1992 because he had ‘sealed the deal’ with the British public. Rarely do voters decide to invest all their hopes and dreams in a political leader. When this does happen — as it did in 1997, possibly 1964 and certainly 1945, the vote goes to Labour.
Among Labour activists, there are certainly some who wish — at the very least — to go down fighting. John Prescott’s ‘Go 4th’ campaign continues rolling, and actually there is something moving, not to say surreal, in the sight of the 71-year-old popping up like a trendy granddad on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in a last-ditch attempt to save the party from oblivion.
Ministers must continue to speak as if they are planning years hence, and must keep a straight face as they discuss plans for 2012 or beyond. Privately, ministers talk about the six months they realistically have left to get various pet schemes delivered. They are like the cartoon coyote who has run off a cliff, but is held momentarily in the air by the sheer force of his delusion. Meanwhile, the Tory road runner has long disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Leadership is, of course, a crucial issue. Anyone with any sense in Labour now knows that Brown should go and allow someone else to take the helm. I am told Brown himself is feeling terribly beaten up by the events of the last year. He was once the Terminator, half-man, half replicant, annihilating all who crossed his path; he is now more like Wall-E, Disney’s robot, alone on the planet, surrounded by detritus.
But where should the party go next? There was a time, at the beginning of the Brown premiership, when there remained a possibility that the future of Labour could be discussed in a creative manner. But now the parliamentary party has fragmented into sectarian factions. There’s the Real New Labour of John Denham, which believes the party lost its way when Tony Blair fell in love with the free market. Then there’s the Continuity New Labour of Blairites like Liam Byrne or Alan Milburn, who believe the permanent revolution should gain pace. Despite news of its demise, the dominant sectarian faction remains Provisional New Labour, the Brownite rump, bolstered by the money of the giant Unite union and still convinced that it can deliver the leadership to Ed Balls.
Such is the state of disarray that it’s now difficult to see when the next generation of Labour ideas will emerge or where they will come from. It is telling that not one significant intellectual figure on the left has yet decided to fight a seat for Labour. Sunder Katwala, the energetic and presentable head of the Fabian Society, would be a massive asset as an MP. Richard Reeves, the charismatic head of Demos, would be more likely to stand as a Lib Dem or Tory, and Neal Lawson, who runs the Compass pressure group, seems happy to work behind the scenes, with Jon Cruddas as his organisation’s parliamentary spokesman.
In any other circumstances, Jessica Asato, acting director of the Blairite Progress group, would be the obvious model for a younger generation of prospective Labour MPs. The fact that the Labour leadership has not insisted she go for a seat speaks volumes about its lack of vision. Instead it is trade union figures like Jack Dromey who are being considered for what few winnable seats remain. This simply does not look like a party planning rejuvenation.
Next week’s conference should be the moment for the next generation to begin seizing control of the party. The fortysomethings who now dominate the Cabinet have left it far too late to move against the Blair-Brown duumvirate that held the party in thrall for too long. James Purnell has latterly voiced his belief that a line must be drawn under the New Labour era. But he is five years too late.
Several Labour MPs in safe seats are retiring, so the next election will not be entirely without some new Labour blood. There are some excellent young Labour candidates standing next year: Rushanara Ali in Bethnal Green and Bow, Stella Creasy in Walthamstow, Chuka Umunna in Streatham are all potential future shadow cabinet material. But they have no public profile beyond the political class, no power base within the party and are in no position to influence policy.
In defeat, the Labour party must show the kind of humility it took the Tories a decade to learn. The unexpected success of David Cameron in the party’s leadership contest came as the result of his allies’ close examination of the New Labour project. The younger generation of Labour politicians should make a similar study of how Cameron came from nowhere to lead the party.
Sometimes it is wisest to know what you cannot know. If the Labour party has any sense, it will accept that it will have barely heard the name of the person who will lead them to what may yet be victory in 2014. There will be several false starts, much soul-searching and — above all — a genuine hunger for power before the party reaches that stage.
The answer will not lie in Labour’s so-called lost generation of Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham and Purnell. If they genuinely have the interests of the party at heart, they will drift gracefully into middle age and not make a bid for the top job. They were the future — once. But from next year their names must be consigned to the past as definitively as Healey, Callaghan, Hattersley, Kinnock, Blair and Brown will be.
Few, if any, of these issues will be discussed at what will probably be Labour’s last conference before its next leadership election. More is the pity. When electoral defeat is a given, a party must start thinking seriously about how it might recover. And Labour is in no fit state to do even that.