Another hara-kiri weekend for Labour
I've spent this weekend feeling a strong sense of deja vu.
My reaction to the calls for a leadership contest from Siobhain McDonagh, Joan Ryan et al is pretty much identical to my reaction to the letter from the 2001 intake of MPs that tried to precipitate a leadership election in September 2006. In both cases I disagreed with the initiative profoundly (I'd be in moral turmoil about trying to oust a leftwing leader like Michael Foot who I disagreed with on everything, let alone someone from my own wing of the Party), but know some of the people involved and respect them and their motives, even whilst disagreeing with them.
I like Siobhain McDonagh, I share almost all her politics, and she cannot be accused of "treachery" because she never supported Brown being PM in the first place. She and her sister, former General Secretary Margaret, are amongst Labour's most formidable grassroots organisers, turning Mitcham & Morden from a Tory seat into a Labour fortress with a 12,500 majority through sheer hard work. They are serious people who will have acted in what the believe to be the best interests of the Party. Their friend and ally Joan Ryan is an equally accomplished campaigner whose holding onto ultra-marginal Enfield North with a swing against her of less than 1% was one of the miracles of the 2005 General Election - and featured some of the most innovative campaign literature I've ever seen.
However, I think their timing is not forgivable in this instance. The PM deserves the chance to turn round the current opinion polling numbers. He has been trying to do that with policy initiatives over the last two weeks and obviously the key moment will be his conference speech. However much people might think there is some unnamed person out there who could do a better job, you don't deliberately destabilise your own party's leader when they are attempting to restore the party's fortunes - particularly when you don't even have a named alternative to support. Everyone in the PLP knew about the timing of the "relaunch" so there is no excuse for torpedoing it. My hunch is that the bulk of the PLP and party members think we owe Gordon the chance to turn things round.
Strategically I also despair at this continued division of the right of the Party. How on earth did we get into this ridiculous situation where people are categorised not by where they sit on an ideological spectrum but by whether they are "Blairites" or "Brownites" - two camps with about as much political - as opposed to personal - difference between them as the Big Enders and Little Enders in Gulliver's Travels (named after their preferred mode of egg eating) yet who behave towards each other like the Montagues and Capulets? I have tried to think of a single policy where Siobhain and Joan would disagree with die-hard Brownites like, for instance Tom Watson and Ian Austin. I can't think of one. Surely people who agree on policy and ideology should be working together to defeat the Tories, the Lib Dems, and in our own party those who want a lurch back to the left, not continuing some blood feud about who said what to whom at Granita in 1994? Or are we destined to see coup after counter coup, revenge political attack after attack, until the current generation of MPs are on their zimmer frames in the Lords (if it still exists)? At some point people who actually agree on everything except personalities have to draw a line and just get on with working together.
I do not see how this spate of resignations can achieve the change of leader the protagonists want. I doubt there are anything like the 70 MPs required to force a vote at Annual Conference. At Annual Conference there is next to no chance of securing a 50% vote to trigger a leadership election - for a start-off, which unions would back it and they have 50% of the vote before the CLP delegates even start voting? If there was a leadership contest and Brown wanted to stand in it, I reckon he would win - we know from the Deputy Leadership contest last year that union members overwhelming follow the advice on who to vote for sent out with the ballot, and I can't imagine National Political Director of Unite Charlie Whelan drafting a recommendation for Derek Simpson to send that didn't back Gordon. Net result: same PM but wounded by a contest, and the Party having wasted a vast amount of money and time on fighting itself not Cameron. If Brown stood down and there was an open contest my money would be on a soft left candidate like Harriet Harman or John Denham coming through on transfers, which surely can't be the outcome Siobhain and Joan want.
It's obviously too late for the people who have already broken cover to retreat from what they are doing, but I hope that other Labour MPs think very carefully before causing further instability in the run up to a conference where unity is vital. We need calls for a leadership contest now like a fish needs a bicycle.