How to dislodge a leader who doesn’t want to go
Ross McKibbin tries to rouse Labour’s backbenchers
Whether or not the prime minister was cheered to the rafters at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after the local/European elections I do not know. That he was allowed an easy run by MPs is agreed. Given the extent of Labour’s defeat (or non-victory if you are a loyalist), the continuing disaster in Iraq and the constant readiness of the prime minister to undermine what Labour is actually achieving at home, such passivity is both surprising and depressing. It is not wholly inexplicable, however. As many have pointed out, electoral calculation probably lies behind the reluctance of MPs to panic. Labour’s vote is still remarkably ‘efficient’. A large number of its MPs will be re-elected on an almost scandalously small fraction of the national vote. Furthermore, to the extent that the polls are not misleading, Labour remains well ahead of the Conservatives in that crucial indicator of public favour: who is best fitted to manage the economy. And the polls suggest that the benign effects of increased government spending have at last been discerned by the electorate. Although the prime minister is alleged to be no longer ‘trusted’ he is still personally popular, and the well-known Blair charm will be ladled out in gallons at the next general election. Even in the party’s awkward squad, many MPs are convinced that Blair remains their surest electoral hope. They have probably also concluded that, given the proportionate decline of the old working class, working-class abstention matters less to Labour than in the past. There is thus less fear of antagonising the heartlands and more conviction that Blair’s electoral coalition is, despite everything, intact.
Yet the inertia, the seeming complacency, so much more complacency within the PLP than outside, the touching readiness to forgive, is still surprising. Blair’s failings as leader of the Labour Party are not a secret. He is impulsive and endlessly ready to adjust Labour’s policies – whatever the moral cost – to suit the interests and prejudices of the powerful. He has also diminished the benefits to Labour of the rapid increase in state expenditure by repeatedly playing down its significance and playing up the significance of ‘reform’, ‘variety’ and ‘choice’ in the public sphere – all of which run against the dispositions of the electorate and the traditions of the Labour Party. For the Europhiles, who are a majority in the PLP, he has by endless opportunism perhaps irredeemably damaged British interests in Europe. And there is Iraq. Hitherto, the real disasters of modern British politics have been Tory disasters – Suez or the Poll Tax. Whatever their failings, Labour governments had never done anything dramatically foolish. No longer. And the folly is overwhelmingly Blair’s, to whose egoism the Labour Party has been subordinated. Although he might well believe that he will be justified in the end, he does not seem to care much about the consequences to the Labour Party if he is not. This is usually regarded as an elementary failing in a party leader.