ew Labour's Black Christmas - a roller-coaster
ride of recriminations, resignations, baronial rivalries
and juicy revelations - excited the incestuous circle of
political insiders who spin, leak and report on each other.
But outside the political "Beltway", it reinforced a weariness
with politicians. Polls don't register much change in Labour's
commanding lead - probably mainly due to that pathetic state
of the Tory Opposition. Labour should worry that its core
vote is slipping away, along with many grassroots members.
Black Christmas also obscured concerns about the morality
and effectiveness of US-UK military actions in Iraq plus the
Irish peace process and the onset of the Euro.
But what real difference has it made to the Government's
direction? Whilst Tony Blair was away, Gordon Brown and John
Prescott briefly raised the pale pink standard of Keynesianism
- somewhat radical given New Labour's neo-monetarism, but
hardly what some called a bloodless coup against Blair.
Blair then praised Brown but pointedly reminded us that they
jointly devise economic strategy. So we shouldn't believe
that Brown is a closet left-winger.
Forget the tale of who leaked details of Peter Mandelson's
unusual home loan. The real mystery is whether there are major
differences between Brown and Blair.
One view is that politically, if not personally, there is
not a cigarette paper between them - a view confirmed by Brown's
recent conformist contributions. Another view sees Brown as
a social democrat whilst Blair is a middle class liberal.
They jointly revised Old Labour and have managed to stick
together in good economic and political themes. But once events
start to slip, such differences could come to the fore. Brown
certainly has strong left-wing supporters who feel he might
one day challenge Blairism.
A prominent example of a policy that could prise open tensions
is tax policy. Labour fought the last election promising to
keep basic tax rates. Blair maintains that this is not a temporary
compromise but one that he wishes to carry into the next manifesto
and administration. When presented with this viewpoint, Brown
responded that nothing was set in concrete. Whether this is
playing to the gallery, a Chancellor's normal caution or presages
a big fight uncertain.
Improving social provision requires mobilising opinion in
favour of fair taxes - 'can pay, want to pay?'
We also need an authoritative insider's account of the so-far
concealed compromises and tensions within New Labour Step
forward Charlie Whelan?.
It is thought that Blair was unhappy with many policies inherited
from John Smith. These include the Minimum Wage, union rights
and Scottish Devolution. Many Ministers are unhappy with cosying
up to the Liberals and realigning the centre-left through
Proportional Representation. Prescott seems willing to resign
rather than share power with Paddy Ashdown.
Black Christmas began this Government's mid-term period.
After the honeymoon comes the reassessment. Suddenly, a window
of opportunity opened for people to promote long suppressed
policies. MPs and activists were emboldened and questioned
whether private lobbying would ever achieve anything. Moderate
and left-wing opinion - from Roy Hattersley to Ken Livingstone
- appears to be coalescing around what might once have been
seen as a rather tame social democratic approach.
Hence Blair's desperation to highlight initiatives to show
a Government in tune with the people's priorities and to keep
Harold Macmillan's 'dangerous events' are looming. Watch
out for local, European, Scottish and Welsh election results.
Labour could lose 2,000 council seats and have to share power
with the LibDems in Scotland. Will the Millenium Dome and
its associated tube line be ready on time? Are the doomsayers
right in fearing the worst of the millennim computer bug?
Will world recession blow the Government off course? Will
Labour's closeness to so many business leaders rebound on
their reputation for probity? A republican atrocity in London
could finish bipartisanship. Delivery of improvements in public
services is the name of the game. Labour cannot keep blaming
the Tories for crises in public services.
Continuing debate on Mandelson's possible rehabilitation
merely keeps Labour's ideological and personal sores open
and liberally sprinkled with salt.
But the Government's big problem is that it still lacks a
coherent ideological perspective. As the Times' estimable
commentator, Michael Gove acutely puts it: 'there are only
personalities, trying to find the Third Way to a Second Term.
But without First Principles.' Unless Blairism consolidates
its political and ideological base, factional frictions may
return to haunt New Labour and fill its ideological vacuum.
Who know, next time Brown's head could roll.
This article first appeared in Fortnight magazine
for which Gary Kent is Westminster correspondent.