Thursday, 21 May 2009

Alan Johnson, Polly Toynbee and political meltdown

Almost a year ago, I wrote in 14 things Gordon Brown should do now that, if we had to have Gordon Brown in charge, he should at least make Alan Johnson "the main public voice of the government, since he is one of the few present members of the cabinet who seems like a human being and actually answers the questions put to him".

In a response to that post, Neil Harding said: better still, make Alan Johnson PM and be done with it. Neil later enlarged on the point with a post of his own plumping for either Johnson or John Denham, both of whom support proportional representation. At all events, it was certainly hard to see how either of them could do any worse than Brown.

Then last September, in Further thoughts on leadership, I noted that Polly Toynbee had finally admitted that she'd been wrong about Brown; she now realised he was an incompetent fraud (I paraphrase slightly). The question then arose, was it now too late to make a change in the leadership? I wrote: "For what it's worth, I say give it a go, preferably with Alan Johnson".

Nobody paid much attention, and Johnson himself went around saying he didn't want the job, anyway. Since then the whole financial system has suddenly collapsed; and the economy, supposedly Brown's one strong point, has gone down the toilet with astonishing speed.

And in the last couple of weeks, Westminster politics itself has gone into complete and surely unprecedented meltdown, in a tumultuous series of unforeseen events that I think has taken everybody's breath away.

Meanwhile, Polly Toynbee has really been putting the knife into Brown lately. On 11 May she wrote, in Gordon Brown must go – by June 5:

"It's all over for Brown and Labour. The abyss awaits. As long as he remains leader, there is nothing that wretched Labour candidates can plausibly say on the doorstep (....) Labour made the rich richer and poor poorer: growth for the few, not the many. (...) Gordon Brown has been tested and found in want of almost every attribute a leader needs."
She went on, countering the view that the main problem was that Brown was hopeless on the telly: "It wasn't the medium that did for him, but the message. There wasn't one".

This is remarkable language from somebody who spent so long during the previous regime telling us that, if only Blair would go, the situation would be incomparably transformed with Brown at the helm. But there is more. Returning to the fray only four days later, Ms Toynbee wrote in Only Alan Johnson can prevent catastrophe:
"There are few Brownites left, only MPs anxiously calculating if the upheaval of regicide might precipitate a worse disintegration or whether Alan Johnson might save a hundred extra seats and restore Labour's political verve. 'If the execution was swift, they would do much better with Alan Johnson,' says the Ipsos Mori pollster Ben Page."
I and others have often written that there is no point in just changing the Labour leader: there must also be, at the same time, a bonfire of wrong-headed, unpopular, right-wing New Labour policies, and a clear definition of an entirely new political approach based on fairness and commonsense. Here too, Polly Toynbee has come round to my way of thinking:

"It may be too late for mighty swerves in political direction before next year's election, but it's easy to sweep away the self-laid landmines in Labour's path. No ID cards, but free passports for all instead. Devise a better plan for the Post Office – Johnson knows it well – and abandon anything that's more trouble and cost than it's worth. Ed Miliband's good green policy deserves a high profile, only achieved by revisiting Brown's disastrous third runway decision. Postpone Trident and open a public debate on nuclear arms and Britain's future place in the EU and the world. On inequality, set up a social justice commission to map a long-term path to fairer shares in pay, wealth and tax. In 12 years Labour has never debated these fundamentals ...."
Many of us can easily agree with all of that. Labour still isn't going to win, which, as I wrote the other day in Labour is an utterly busted flush, may not be such a bad thing, even from the party's own point of view, since winning the next general election could be a poisoned chalice. But it can still make a real difference if the Tories win by only a smallish majority, rather than win by a landslide. What we are asking Alan Johnson to take on is a thankless but noble task: to lead the party to defeat and into opposition, where it might have some chance, however slim, of rediscovering its purpose and its soul.


Jamie said...

...if the Tories win by only a smallish majority, rather than win by a landslide...My father's preference was always for the Tories, with a small majority. As far as I can tell, this never, ever works.

The Tories with a large majority seem to behave better (not good, just better) than the Tories with a small majority. Thatcherism took 11 years to wreck the country, with large/landslide majorities.

That awful, er, whatshisname, er, him, he had a small majority - eventually a Con-Unionist pact - and in his 7 years did untold, appalling and downright evil things.

At least That Woman did great things: terrible, but great. Major did petty, wrongheaded, boneheaded things that Labour (much more a post-Major Consensus party in government than a post-Thatcher Consensus one) never got round to undoing.

And now that ludicrously right-wing Cameron will be next, quite possibly with a small majority of foaming loons behind him, all requiring individual concessions for their eye-swiveling schemes. Marvelous: at least we know we're doomed.

peezedtee said...

What I had in mind was a report I saw somewhere that many of the new Tory MPs who would get in on a landslide are overwhelmingly Thatcherite, anti-Green, and Europhobic (or xenophobic), and this would make it more difficult for Cameron to do the green and reforming things he says he wants to do.

Neil Harding said...

pzt. Thanks for the mention, if only...Ironically, kicking out militant in the 80s was the start of the rot for labour. It got such good press and public support it encouraged kinnock, blair and brown et al to completely stifle debate and dissent in the party. From here it was only downhill. We must remember though that without labour MPs expenses would have remained secret. Now there is so much to do in 12 short months but the US constitution was written in 4, Germany's basic law in 6. Not with Brown at the helm though.