Labour's loser (Wall Street Journal)

November 24, 2016 22:48

I have a piecein today's Wall Street Journal on Gordon Brown, and how it's not necessarily all over for Labour. Here's an extract:

To misquote Oscar Wilde, you would have to have a heart of stone not to smile at the slow political death of Gordon Brown. For over a decade he waged a war of attrition against Tony Blair, based on a bitter, resentful anger that he should have been the occupant of 10 Downing Street. He undermined Mr. Blair at every opportunity, ruining any chance that the then-prime minister could introduce full-on reform of the British public sector.

And now, within a year of taking over, Mr. Brown is almost universally written off, revealed as a lightweight posing in a heavyweight's clothing. He suffers scornful political obituaries that make John Major's demise seem almost pleasant in comparison.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

...But nothing is ever certain in politics. We have been here before, not that long ago, and the result was very different.

In March 1990, the Conservatives were defeated in the Mid-Staffordshire by-election after a 21% swing to Labour. Margaret Thatcher's government was enduring abysmal opinion poll ratings as public anger at the poll tax raged. The Conservatives hovered around 30%, with Labour regularly hitting over 50%. Just as commentators today describe a Conservative victory as certain, so in 1990 a Labour victory was taken as read.

Yet just two years later, the Conservatives won with 42% of the vote to Labour's 34%. So much for inevitability.

What changed, of course, was that the governing party ditched its leader and started afresh. Baroness Thatcher was replaced with the barely known and thus untainted John Major.

...As the emergence of John Major showed, replacing a hated prime minister can transform a party's fortunes. This is precisely why Gordon Brown's initial poll ratings were so good when he took over last July: Labour was scoring around 42%, at least 10 points higher than the Conservatives. Tony Blair's departure was like a boil being lanced, and the public greeted his successor with open arms. It was almost irrelevant that it was Mr. Brown who took over; the electorate would have greeted almost any successor similarly. But once the initial sense of relief had passed, the results started to reflect the true regard in which Mr. Brown was held.

As Gordon Brown's sudden collapse also shows, it's not changing leaders per se that is the secret; it's changing to the sort of leader who suits the public's mood. Through most of the 1980s that was Margaret Thatcher. By 1990, a new leader in the Thatcher style would have been disastrous; the mood required a Major. And even though Britons were tired of Tony Blair by last year, the change they sought was not to a man such as Brown: domineering, arrogant, robotic, brooding. They wanted a leader who, like Mr. Blair, was at ease with himself -- just without the foreign-policy baggage. They wanted someone with whom they could identify. Mr. Brown is as far from that ideal as it is possible to be.

...That is why the removal of Mr. Brown is a prerequisite to a Labour revival. If Conservative support is built on Labour's being led by Gordon Brown, then the picture would be very different if he were replaced by a leader who can match David Cameron's appeal. That means Labour's best chance of recovery rests not with the most widely touted names: David Miliband, the 43-year-old foreign secretary who comes across as a political geek; and Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who has been in the Cabinet since Labour took power in 1997 and would hardly mark a fresh start. Labour needs to repeat the Conservatives' trick in 1990 and give voters the impression that the new leader represents effectively a change of government. The man who leaps out is Alan Johnson, the current health secretary, who is eloquent and capable.

November 24, 2016 22:48

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