It seems you can’t move at the moment for media speculation about the possibility of a Blairite challenge for the party leadership – today’s bout of overheated rumour mongering and misdirected briefing comes courtesy of the BBC:
The Labour Party’s website is likely to play a pivotal role in the battle to be its next leader, it has emerged.
MPs’ leadership nominations will be published on the site, although party sources denied reports the list will be updated hourly to boost interest.
Nevertheless, opponents of Gordon Brown reportedly plan to use it to show growing support for David Miliband, in an effort to persuade him to stand.
MPs can nominate a candidate even if they have not entered the race.
Much as a contested election would be good for party in terms of its internal democracy and as a vehicle for policy debate amongst members, the more I look at the situation that developing around the upcoming leadership contest the more convinced I’m becoming that the very last thing we need is David Milliband’s name on the ballot paper – or even that of any credible challenger from the Blairite ‘wing’ of the party.
There are two things, in particular, that lead me to that opinion, both of which are closely related.
First, there’s the fact that the Tories have been talking up the possibility of Milliband as an alternative to Brown, and that inevitably raises suspicions in my mind as to exactly what it is they see in Milliband that would lead them to prefer to contesting the next general election with him as Party Leader/Prime Minister rather than Brown.
The second thing that’s setting the old ‘there’s more to this than meets the eye’ spider-sense going in the concerted efforts of the Tory Party to attack Brown via the back door, i.e. by means of his reputed relationship with the Smith Institute.
That’s one’s been puzzling me for a while because I couldn’t quite see what the strategy is.
Sure there’s a transparently obvious attempt under way to mire Brown in allegations of sleaze and financial chicanery – but if you actually look closely at the Tory’s allegations and how they’ve been reported in the press what is becoming increasingly apparent is that:
1. It’s only the broadsheets that have shown any real interest in the ‘story’ at all, so the smears are hardly hitting a mass audience.
2. The Tory’s ‘case’ against Brown is actually very thin and rests heavily on arcane technicalities in areas of law and regulation about which the majority of the electorate don’t know, understand or care about and much of the actual press reporting have been little short of abysmal in its blatant misreporting of the actual content of the regulations.
On April 1st (ironically or appropriately depend on your preference) The Times reported that the Tory Party have asked the Electoral Commission to investigate Brown alleged links to the Smith Institute, which the Tories appear to be claiming is operating as a ‘Third Party’ organisation in electoral law, a report which includes the claim that:
Under electoral laws, any organisation that develops policy for political parties or helps promote politicians must declare all donations of more than £5,000.
That is utter rubbish.
The regulations in PPERA 2000 that cover Third Party organisations relate to the production of ‘election materials’ by those organisation – i.e. actively campaigning in support of a particular party or candidate and the only regulations in that section of the Act that cover policy develop relate only to direct sponsorship of research/studies and any publications or conferences conducted to promote them.
It unlikely, in the extreme, that the Tories will hit paydirt with their attacks on the Smith Institute – the best they could hope for is a minor technical breach of regulations that offers them little effective milage – it’s only a couple of weeks since Cameron was caught with his trousers round his ankles over his ‘Leader’s Club’ dinners at the House of Commons and who’s talking about that now?
The Tory Party ‘High Command’ may be many things, but they’re not [completely] stupid, so there obvious some degree of method to these attacks, something they hope to achieve by them, but what exactly?
If they expect Brown’s alleged relationship with the Smith Institute to turn into the next ‘loans for peerages’ scandal then they’re going to be sadly disappointed – the whole thing is just too technical and too arcane to have any real legs with the wider electorate. It might make a bit of filler in the Times and the Torygraph but its not really the stuff of Daily Mail headlines and Sun editorials, so what the deal here?
What would either a surprise victory for someone David Milliband or a politically compromised Smith Institute give them that would be perceived to be to their electoral advantage?
However it been done, the smart money has it that Gordon Brown has been quietly preparing for his ascension to the top job for quite some time and probably has a clearly defined and carefully planned programme of new policies and initiatives waiting in the wings, ready to be rolled out during his first 100 days in office as Prime Minister.
Now if that is true, then Brown almost certainly has the initiative once he takes over at the top – he can roll out his programme and set the political agenda forcing Cameron, at least initially, to dance to his tune, then take a few soundings as to the mood of the electorate and decide whether or not a snap general election will be in his favour or not.
That’s an option that the party won’t have if Milliband (or an as yet unknown Blarite challenger) were to beat Brown to the leadership simply because such a challenger would not have done the groundwork necessary to come out fighting and seize the initiativein anything like the same way and it could also be ruled out as a possibility for Brown if the Tories could blow enough smoke around the Smith Institute, which almost certainly has done some of the detailed policy work, to compromise its political position and reputation such that its output becomes too hot to handle for fear of yet more allegations of sleaze.
Why should this matter to the Tories? Well, give me an example of a detailed Tory policy developed and promoted by David Cameron since he became their leader…
… carry on …
Thus far, off the top of my head, there’s been a new ‘green’ tax on airline travel that, frankly, was about as popular as finding oneself in a transatlantic flight with a party from the Osama Bin Laden appreciation society and some sort of vaguely specified restoration of tax allowances for married couples as part of a social policy that big on platitudes and sentiment and a veritable vacuum when it comes to ideas and detail.
Cameron says that he’ll ‘promote social responsibility’ he just can’t say how because he really doesn’t know.
It says a lot that, thus far, Cameron’s best received policy ‘idea’ was the one about Britishness where he suggested that the government should leave the subject well alone.
That about sums him up really, doesn’t it? The one idea he’s had that people seem to like is the one that involves him doing nothing.
One of the key things that the Tories will be banking on heading into the next general election is that, as happened in 1997, the electorate will have reached a point where they feel that its time for a change – and that may well be what will happen.
What’s much less certain at this stage is exactly what kind of change the electorate will be looking for – a simple change of ruling party or something more fundamental in terms of a shift away from the politics of style, soundbites and presentation to the politics of substance.
If its the latter then, right now, the Tories look likely to be a deep trouble – Cameron may be personable enough in his ‘nice guy’ act but the Tories have got no real policies to speak of at the moment and their investment in Cameron’s image and public profile has been so extensive and all-encompassing over the last year that the rest of Shadow Cabinet might as well not exist.
One suspects that if one did a survey to ascertain just exactly which Tory shadow cabinet members the general public public could recognise just from photographs alone then the results, in terms the most recognisable, would probably go Cameron, Boris, William Hague and then ‘A N Other’, with Boris and Hague making the top three only be virtue of having appeared on Have I Got News For You.
Of course the Tories have made public calls for the next Labour leader – whoever it turns out to be – to call a snap election, but then that’s really only the usual bit of political bravado. As things stand a snap election is almost certainly the last thing the Tories want, especially as they appear to believe that if Brown does become the next Prime Minister he’ll be hitting the ground running with a detailed and cohesive programme of policies of the kind that cannot but put the Tories on the back foot and rip away any initiative they’ve gained from Blair’s overly protracted ‘farewell tour’.
As things stand, the Tories are still a long way of having the kind of detailed political programme necessary to fight a general election campaign driven primarily by policies rather than political spin and media presence, having bought into more or less the same overall strategy of fine words and few details that Blair used so effectively in 1997.
What could well be different come the next election is how the incumbent government responds to such a strategy.
By the 1997 election, the Major government had long since run out of ideas and had fallen into arguing amongst themselves over issues, like Europe, that really weren’t that big on the public’s radar – as the abject failure of Hague’s ‘save the pound’ strategy underlined in 2001. This enabled Blair to’mug it’ all the way to Downing Street on the back of a programme that made plenty of fine-sounding promises but did little to explain, in detail, exactly how those promises would be delivered simply because the Tories were in too great a disarray to mount an effective fightback.
That same position, one could easily argue, is pretty much where the current government has reached right now – although much of that is due to an enforced ‘hiatus’ in the real business of politics arising from Blair’s extended stay in the political departure lounge…
…except that waiting in the wings is – so its believed – not only a new leader but a new leader with ideas and a clear, well-defined programme.
Major lost the initiative and then the election because he and Tories had no way of regaining the political initiative.
Labour’s forthcoming leadership election offers the party a way doing what Major couldn’t and regaining that initiative, but only if the incoming leader is able to hit the ground running and put the opposition parties on the back foot straight away.
Brown is almost certainly capable of that, Milliband isn’t, not because he lacks ability but because he will not have had the time and opportunity to prepare the kind of policy programme and strategy necessary to throw Cameron on the back foot and keep him there all the way (hopefully) to a fourth election victory.
Little wonder, then, the Tories are so keen on Milliband and so determined to try and cash a shadow of sleaze over an organisation – the Smith Institute – whose policy development work will almost certainly play a key role in those critical first 100 days should Brown become leader, as pretty much everyone expects.
Whatever view one might have of Gordon Brown politically, strategically his ascension to the leadership is the only choice that makes sense.