Sunday, 7 September 2008

Further thoughts on leadership

Polly Toynbee deserves some credit for integrity recently. The other day she flatly admitted on Newsnight that she had got it wrong about Gordon Brown. "Sometimes you only find out when it is too late", she said (or words to that effect) of the business of trying to judge who will make a good leader.

Now, in yesterday's Grauniad, she mounts a new, despairing attack on the Prime Minister, and finally comes round to the view I have taken all along:

The imaginary Blair/Brown ideological distinction has now been exposed as the sham it always was. Brown used to let it be known he opposed university fees, war, ID cards, Trident, foundation hospitals and a host of other things he now supports. The 10p tax band abolition to bribe the better off was a wickedness entirely of his own devising. Letting rip the disastrous house price boom was him, as was letting top earnings soar unchecked while reckless banks had "light-touch regulation" and public sector workers were pinned to below-inflation pay. The sad truth is that he opposed Blair, not Blair policies.

I have said before that, throughout all the years when it was being taken as read that Brown would automatically be much better than Blair, I could never see it myself. I could never get anyone to tell me exactly what was supposed to be so good about him. Maybe, I concluded, I just haven't seen that much of him. I assumed that these people must know more about him than I did, and knew what they were talking about.

But many people, including oneself, can be amazingly wrong when it comes to deciding who will be the best man for the job. Who can forget the Tories' astonishing decision to go for the patently hopeless Iain Duncan-Smith when they could have had Kenneth Clarke, still even now one of the sharpest and most popular politicians in the country.

I also think back to November 1980 when Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party. I was working for a Labour MP at the time, and I remember leaving the House of Commons with him that night. As we walked along Victoria Street looking for somewhere to eat, we were both delighted that, as we felt on that day, the right decision had been made.

It has all been forgotten now, but at the time, the point of choosing Foot was essentially that he was neither Tony Benn nor Denis Healey. Foot was supposed to be the person who could unite a badly fractured party. In retrospect, this seems absurd.

Looking back now, it is blazingly obvious that Denis Healey would have been the right choice in the long run. As things turned out, it was to be another 17 years before the party got back into power.

The lesson I draw from this is that nobody really knows who will prove to be any good. Maybe I am completely wrong in being unable to see why on earth some people think David Miliband is a sound idea.

Of course, this matters only if you think, like most of the commentators just now (Alan Watkins dissenting), that Labour couldn't possibly do any worse under a new leader than it is doing now, and just conceivably might do slightly better, i.e. reduce somewhat the size of the incoming Tory government's majority in 2010.

For what it's worth, I say give it a go, preferably with Alan Johnson. My main concern is to maximise the chances of the Lib Dems being in a position of leverage in the next House in order to get some progress on constitutional reform. For that to work, we need the two main parties to be fairly close to each other in numbers of seats. It's a long shot, but hope springs eternal.

UPDATE: The Tories are now worried that Labour might actually dump Brown, according to this piece on the Spectator blog. That fact alone suggests that Alan Watkins is probably wrong for once. If Tories want Brown to stay, it is presumably in Labour's interest that he goes.

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