Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is this Brown's Darlington?

Older readers will remember how in 1983 Labour's unexpectedly good result in the Darlington by-election extinguished any threat to Michael Foot's leadership, leaving him free to lead the party to its disastrous general election defeat in the same year.

The broadly positive reaction to Gordon Brown's speech at the Labour conference in Manchester might just about have saved his skin too - although Ruth Kelly's resignation won't help Brown.

As with 1983, the problem now is both about the leader and the party - changing leaders now might do some good but not much. Back then, if Dennis Healey had taken over as leader, he might have saved a few Labour seats, but not much more. The scale of the Foot disaster probably helped to make the more sensible members of the party realise that things had to change.

I note that back in 2006 this blog pointed out the many negative precedents for lieutenants taking over from long-serving and electorally-successful party leaders. Rosebery, Balfour and James Callaghan and Alec Douglas-Hume all led their parties to catastrophic defeats, Neville Chamberlain never got as far as a general election. Anthony Eden and John Major who did win general elections are hardly happy precedents either.

So the odds were always against a successful Brown premiership. Let's face it, if Brown had been good enough, he would have been chosen ahead of Blair in 2004 - he was older, more experienced and had greater intellectual depth. The fact that those who dreamed of New Labour New Britain went for Blair not Brown was an unequivocal vote of no confidence. Elevating Brown to the top job was a bit like a football team replacing a top striker with a dependable centre half.

The problem, however, is not just one of leadership. Despite fears among the political classes about the fickleness of the electorate, in fact at five of the last six general elections they have re-elected the governing party. This, too, is unprecedented. In the previous six elections, the incumbent government won just twice, and these - 1966 and October 1974 were snap elections called while Labour were still in honeymoon periods.

Of course, for much of the last 30 years the party in power has faced an official opposition that looked unconvincing, if not impossible, as a party of government. If we return to a period when both Labour and the Conservatives inspire doubt and confidence in equal measure then we are likely to see changes of power happen more regularly.

So Labour are probably best advised to stick with the devil they know. Brown has probably earned the right on the basis of past service to lead the party into the next election. One can't help feeling that the electoral tide has now turned against Labour and they will have to accept their coming defeat with dignity and try to regroup in opposition.

At least, that's what I would probably conclude were I a member of the Labour party. But of course I'm not, but rather a Lib Dem campaigner in a marginal seat where we are hoping to unseat a Labour MP. So instead, I will hope for the anti-Brown campaign to gather pace, a messy act of regicide, continuing bitterness and bad feeling, leading to catastrophic defeat and the ultimate replacement of Labour by the Lib Dems as the main alternative to the Tories.

Whichever way, it's time to get delivering those leaflets.

2 comments:

Peter Welch said...

I always remember Darlington as an unexpectedly good result for the Tories, and an unepxectedly bad result for the Alliance (especially as it came after Bermondsey iirc).

The resignation issue seems to trump the speech.

I wonder though if the Tories are suffering from not looking terribly good or intuitive on the economy. There was a good piece in the FT on this last week http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ffd862ae-85e3-11dd-a1ac-0000779fd18c.html?nclick_check=1

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