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A place in history… for the Party

Peter Kenyon reflects on the election campaign that gave Labour a third term and left its leader increasingly isolated in his own party

L abour is back. A historic third term has been won. Despite the size of the majority, Tony Blair’s days are numbered. No one on the democratic left is in the slightest doubt. May 5, 2005 heralded an unprecedented victory for the Labour Party, despite its Leader. Yet he still insists on hanging on, mouthing the rhetoric of New Labour that was airbrushed out of all but a handful of Labour election literature. During the campaign he was shown extraordinary, if not foolhardy, loyalty by the man expected to succeed him – his chancellor since 1997, Gordon Brown.

Members of the government handed no ‘hostages to fortune’ to the opposition parties. Labour was united in front of the TV cameras for its set piece campaign programme. But on the doorsteps and the streets of Britain, other stories were being told. Depleted bands of Labour activists argued relentlessly with irate voters in defence of their local candidates. The only place in Britain where voters could vote for or against Blair was in Sedgefield, his Durham constituency but residual Labour loyalty preserved his majority.

The opposition parties refusal to stand down denied Reg Keys, the man whose son was one of the UK military killed in Iraq, a clear run against Blair. This loss of a possible ‘Martin Bell’ moment in the 2005 General Election merely served to highlight the dismal state of British parliamentary democracy. But this did not stop millions of former Labour supporters registering their protest by either staying away from the polls or casting their votes for one or other of the growing number of opposition parties.

Nor could there be any doubt about the reason why Labour was unable to halt the decline in its share of the popular vote. Iraq dogged the short campaign, just as it has since the former BBC defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan’s fateful broadcast in May 2003.

Now is the time for democratic socialists to script the ‘elegant succession’ first sought by Clare Short, the former International Development Secretary after her resignation from the Cabinet over Iraq and broken promises in the same month as Gilligan. History will determine that Blair decided to commit Britain to war against Iraq in April 2002 without consulting Queen, Cabinet, Party or Parliament. If it wants a 4th term, Labour has got to put its own house in order. It cannot afford to indulge its Leader a moment longer, except in his resignation. If we want to understand how proud men fall, remember Shelley’s famous sonnet of 1818:

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Blair lost his own moment as dawn broke on Friday 6 May. Then was the opportunity to write his own place in history: to reflect on how the historic 3rd term was won, to acknowledge the momentous contribution to reshaping the British economy by his loyal chancellor. But to be magnanimous and truly contrite is not in Blair’s nature. There was no surprise as the No.10 machine swung into action to distribute patronage, litter preferment and cling to power for the 3rd time. Repeatedly Blair has appealed over the heads of his Party to mouth deference to the will of the British people. They have spoken. Yet again, Blair proved he was not listening.

The Cabinet, now wrestling with their shiny new ministerial Red Boxes crammed with briefing papers on their new portfolios (except Gordon Brown of course), would do well to reflect on how Britain went to war. Will they allow themselves to be traduced again? The Whips struggling to put names to faces of the new cohort of Labour MPs need to do their sums. Will they risk three-line whips on the pretext that ‘Tony wants’? Can advisors in No.10 ever make Labour Party policy? The Labour Party 2005 Manifesto, despite its self-serving Preface by Blair, is a good read, littered with contradictions between the ‘New Labour’ rhetoric and the reality of the new policy-making process, Partnership in Power (PiP). Whatever the shortcomings of PiP, this Manifesto needs to be read by democratic socialists. Parts contain the clearest evidence of a battle between the Trade Unions and No.10, which in a careless moment Blair lost. The Warwick Agreement is to be implemented in full. Elsewhere, there is even a sop to Conference, which voted in favour of council housing, to allow local authorities to restart building houses.

The Royal Mail is not to be privatised. Now is not the time for defeatism, resignation or cynicism. Clear-headed analysis of every step of this 3rd Labour administration is needed to pave the way for rebuilding the Party and another Labour victory in 2009. Repeatedly during the campaign, Blair was forced to retreat from his excesses, which in his second term saw Labour so far to the right that even one-nation Tories came across as more Liberal than the Labour Party.

The turning point was in the first week when Michael Howard’s anti-immigration stance backfired, as vividly illustrated in the polls which saw a narrowing gap between Labour and Tory in the opinion polls widen again. From then on the dominant themes were the domestic agenda – a Labour plus thanks to Brown, and trust – a Labour minus due to Blair.That is why collective responsibility is back in vogue, and a restoration of respect for the rule of law is a must. How can Labour tackle anti-social behaviour on sink estates and disruptive pupils in secondary schools, despite specialist status and OFSTED seals of approval, if it own Leader is such a flawed role model?

With the outcome of the French referendum on the European Constitution at the end of May swinging back towards a ‘Yes’ vote albeit by the narrowest of margins, the UK is facing in the tired words of its current Prime Minister some ‘tough choices.

The electorate has spoken about whom it wants to govern Britain. It was and remains well disposed to Labour’s core domestic agenda – better education, health and the environment. But on Europe, voters are deeply suspicious. Blair cannot win a ‘Yes’ vote on this issue, even if he gains more time by the tide of opinion across the Channel swinging back again to deliver a ‘Non!’

Every utterance from No.10 will need to be tested against the template of Labour values.

The task of rebuilding the Party is underway from the grassroots. It needs crowning with a new Leader sooner rather than later.