The first thing to say about the divisions within New Labour over Gordon Brown’s leadership is that there are no principles involved on any side of the civil war that rumbles on at Westminster. All the plotters without exception are concerned about one thing above all other considerations – their political futures.
Principles and New Labour are, in fact, a contradiction in terms. It came into being precisely to ditch even the mildest of social democratic principles and ambitions about reforming aspects of capitalism that weighed down most heavily on the working population.
Last week’s attempted coup by former cabinet ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt reinforced that understanding. Neither was putting forward an alternative programme or change of direction. They simply wanted Brown replaced by an unnamed candidate. Their plot descended into outright farce as the rest of the cabinet bottled out.
What’s at stake for the plotters is not the outcome of the election – most cabinet members apparently consider it lost (with some even hoping for that result if Brown stays) – but the position after polling day. Those like the Milibands who aspire to leadership want to prevent a rout which they believe Brown is leading them towards yet lack the courage to remove the incumbent.
Since 1997 under both Blair and Brown, New Labour has unashamedly aspired to one thing – to become the political representatives of the economic and financial masters of the universe. And to a large extent succeeded – until the second half of 2008 revealed what a hollow state of affairs the British economy was.
Confidence in New Labour has plummeted ever since the global financial meltdown hit British banks for six. With the government forced into record amounts of borrowing to cover the cost of bailing out the banks, establishment circles fear that the political plotting now dominating government affairs is not exactly what’s required right now of the British state.
The Tory Daily Telegraph, for example, accused Hoon et al of “working flat-out to position themselves for an autumn civil war”, adding: “In other words, the Cabinet is devoting itself to vigorous (but laughably amateurish) plotting at a time when the country is facing terrifying levels of debt, and the Government has no coherent plan to reduce them.” It reminded readers that even the Treasury select committee had poured scorn on the forecasts in chancellor Alistair Darling's pre-Budget report.
With the Telegraph in touch with ruling class circles, this ringing of the alarm bells is serious stuff. It is not as if the Tories under David Cameron are in a better position. Even the supportive Telegraph admits that the opposition has no coherent set of policies either, pointing to the fiasco of a “manifesto launch” at the beginning of last week when tax policies on married couples were out one minute and back in the next.
The paper is right to suggest that Cameron does not strike voters as the “irresistible choice for prime minister, merely the obvious one” and is worried that he could win the election by default against a weakened Brown. “If that happens, Britain could pay a heavy price after the election,” the editorial concludes.
The implications should be stated more explicitly. Britain is facing state bankruptcy and the spending cuts required to balance the books to satisfy those who finance government borrowing are so enormous that only a government with enormous authority could carry them through. That is highly unlikely to be the outcome of the forthcoming general election. An historic political crisis is building in Britain and the shenanigans inside New Labour are just a pale reflection of what’s to come.