Usually Martin Kettle is one of the few relatively sensible voices at the Guardian.
This week, after the extraordinary but in-character personal treachery of Polly Toynbee attacking Brown
, the man she has been ramping for PM for years, we have Mr Kettle just being really very, very unhelpful
to the Labour Party.
He makes some fair points about the current polls but doesn't offer a solution.
This is rather like the stance being taken by Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn. Undermine Brown but to what purpose?
There is only any point the ultra Blairites (as opposed to common or garden or lesser spotted Blairites - the about 90% of us who are determined to be as loyal to the next PM as we have been to this one) or commentators like Kettle continuing to talk down Brown's prospects of reviving Labour in the polls if they are going to run a credible candidate against him - not just as a spoiler to take the shine off his win, but to actually win.
But that candidature doesn't exist.
It ain't Alan Milburn who would struggle to get nominated. It ain't John Hutton who the public are largely unaware of. It ain't Clarke whose opposition to Trident replacement makes him completely unfit to hold any foreign policy-orientated high office again. It ain't David Miliband who is too young and untested and says he doesn't want the job. It ain't Alan Johnson, who is a great asset to the Party but whose speech at party conference was not that of a future PM.
There was a brief window immediately after last year's Labour Conference when a credible challenge by John Reid, the only person in the Cabinet who can match Brown in gravitas and experience, and the only one with the political courage to run, looked possible. But unless I have totally misread the situation, Reid has made his peace with Brown and has no intention to run - he certainly wouldn't want to run to please Clarke, as the two appear to have utter contempt for each other.
So without a mainstream non-Brown candidate, talking down Brown just damages the next Labour PM and damages Labour.
Whether it is politicians or Labour-supporting commentators doing it they need to put a sock in it because otherwise their gloom-mongering will become a sell-fulfilling prophesy.
The truth is:
- we don't actually know how the public will react to Brown as PM, but chances are the polls can only go up because we are already bumping along at the lowest base of Labour support
- the current malaise in the polls isn't about Iraq - we already fought a General Election and won it when Iraq was a far more resonant issue for the public
- the fundamentals of the economy and public services remain good - we deserve to get re-elected
- Cameron has put the Tories ahead but not that far ahead - he is a good performer but he isn't Blair or JFK - he's an Old Etonian posh boy with some good basic PR training, a nice manner, and no discernable political philosophy
- we don't know what policy initiatives Brown has up his sleeve - and they may be the kind of defining popular policies (like the Minimum Wage in the first term) that will unite the party and inspire the electorate - certainly I don't expect him to focus as obsessively as Blair on the distraction of "public service reform", which has failed to catch the imagination of either the party or voters
- it's the mid-term - of course we are behind in the polls - the anomaly was that we weren't 10% behind in 1999 and 2003 - in government you do the difficult stuff at this stage in the cycle, then it plays electoral dividends come the General Election
- we know how to win elections, we just won three, one only 2 years ago, so why the doom and gloom?
- the fundamental rules of British electoral behaviour have not changed - people still want a competent government that is broadly moderate socialist/social democratic and caring domestically but looks after their security with regard to crime, immigration and defence and doesn't tax them excessively
Labour's task is to push as hard as it can without alienating people on the domestic social democratic agenda of strong public services and redistribution and equality, without driving people into the arms of the Tories by advocating deal-breakers on crime, tax or defence.
I think Brown understands that - that there is some room for manoeuvre to the left on domestic policy (but in a modern way, not reheating the ideas of 20 years ago) as long as people are reassured on the crime/tax/defence triangle.
Instead of undermining Brown without putting forward an alternative candidate or alternative policies Kettle and commentators and politicians indulging in this game should accept that he's going to be the next PM and start generating popular policy ideas that his team can pick up and run with over the next two years.
It isn't by backing Brown as its next Leader that Labour, is as Kettle puts it, "is beginning to look like it actually wants to lose". The exhibition of "beginning to look like it actually wants to lose" is by Labour-supporting commentators like Kettle and some politicians of the Clarke/Milburn variety who are talking down Brown before he has even got to No10 - how can we expect the public to come back to Labour if we don't all, and I mean all - every Party member - actually sell the Government's successes and potential successes ourselves?