• Labour’s Coup

    The most disturbing aspect of Labour’s latest attempted and abortive coup is neither that it took place nor that it failed. It is the level of incompetence, self-interest and self-delusion in Labour’s ranks that it reveals.

    The latest damp squib reflects little credit on any of those involved. The self-designated coup leaders in 2010 showed as little aptitude for conspiracy as their predecessors did in 2009. They appear to have had no alternative policy programme, no leader-in-waiting ready to take over. They had not, in other words, made the slightest attempt to ensure the success of their venture. They seem to have launched their bid to unseat Gordon Brown on the basis of no more than disappointed personal ambition.

    Those, including Cabinet members, who apparently promised support and then chickened out when the chips were down deserve even less credit. Each of these ersatz soldiers presumably made their own calculations as to where personal advantage might lie. If the coup were to succeed, they would each wish to be on the winning side; but no one of them was prepared to take the risk of putting their heads above their parapet until hostilities had been successfully concluded.

    The next group deserve little better. These are the senior parliamentarians who decided, after careful calculation, that the attempted coup was led by amateurs, and that it suited their interests to show their belated and conditional loyalty to a leader who looked likely to survive only as long as he was hooked up to a life support machine. Each of them, after careful consideration lasting many hours, succeeded in the difficult task of drafting statements that expressed the minimum degree of support needed to keep the life support machine ticking over for a few more weeks or months. They remain ready and eager to switch off the machine as soon as it suits them.

    The usual suspects – the serial plotters – played their usual ineffectual role. They remained available as foot soldiers to any general, or at least subaltern, who cared to raise the standard of revolt. But they lacked any firepower of their own and seemed to have little idea of where or how to get any. Constant exercises on the parade ground proved of little value when and if real hostilities threatened to begin.

    But perhaps the most culpable group are those who soldier on, prepared to change nothing, unwilling to risk anything, ready to accept inevitable defeat, as long as they can prolong their own tenure and cling on to their seats for as long as possible. These are the MPs who have lost faith in the Labour government and who will either not stand again or will throw themselves on the mercy of the voters and hope that they have a better view of that government than they have themselves.

    What attitude should be taken by Labour MPs? The first step is to wake up – to realise that the voters’ judgment in the next few months will be made of Labour’s total record in government under both Blair and Brown, and their sense of where a re-elected Labour government might take them. That judgment would be only marginally affected by a last-minute change of leader, even if it could be arranged, especially when no credible candidate currently presents himself or herself. And what serious leadership candidate would willingly step forward at this point to carry the can for election defeat when a new start would be available after Gordon Brown has lost the election?

    The next step is to rally behind the leader so as to present a united front and minimise the damage inflicted by election defeat. The success of the election campaign should be judged according to how well – and how much of – Labour survives. The priority is to live to fight another day. There are never any final battles in politics. And – taking the most optimistic view – if a miracle is available, it may be best achieved when it is least expected.

    After the election, there must be a genuine contest for the leadership – no more coronations – and an acknowledgment and re-appraisal of the mistakes made in government. The goal should be a renewal of Labour, with a new programme that is true to Labour’s values but is also attuned to the aspirations of Labour supporters, both actual and potential. The “newness” in each of these senses should abjure the capital “N” that has now run its course.

    It may be too much to expect Labour MPs to take the long view when election defeat stares them in the face. But a frenetic obsession with the short-term will only make matters worse. Gordon Brown’s duty now is not to promise an improbable election victory, but to ensure that his troops face the coming battle as a disciplined and united force, so that they leave the battlefield – victorious or otherwise – in good order.

    Bryan Gould

    7 January 2010

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 7 January.