Saturday, January 26, 2008

Brown bottles it again

Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 26 January 2008.

***

When the history of New Labour’s long period in government finally comes to be written, it is unlikely that January 24 will go down as one of the more auspicious dates in its calendar.

It was on that day in 2001 that the then Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson resigned from Tony Blair’s Cabinet for the second and last time over claims that he helped procure a passport for an Indian businessman.

Although the allegations later turned out to be false, Mr Blair and Alastair Campbell acted swiftly and ruthlessly to despatch their close friend and ally into the outer political darkness.

Seven years on, by one of those bizarre coincidences that add to the spice of political life, Thursday January 24 saw the final demise of Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain – although his treatment at the hands of premier Gordon Brown could not have been more different.

As I wrote last week, it has been clear for some time that Mr Hain’s position is untenable, yet Mr Brown, like John Major before him, appeared unable or unwilling to bite the bullet.

You can criticise Mr Blair’s behaviour towards Mr Mandelson – and I did at the time – but by acting decisively, he did at least limit the damage to the government.

Mr Brown, by contrast, tried to hang on to his colleague, while at the same time appearing to undermine him.

It has not, to be fair, been one of his more distinguished episodes, and has served only to enhance the image of him in the public mind as a ditherer.

The Prime Minister did a little better in his handling of the subsequent reshuffle, even if he failed to do either of the things I was urging in these pages a week ago.

He didn’t decide to bring back a heavyweight figure from the Blair years to bolster his flagging administration, and neither did he take the opportunity to scrap the pointless part-time posts of Scottish and Welsh Secretary.

What he did do, though, was to underline one of the key themes that marked his first attempt at Cabinet-making last July – the transition from one Labour generation to the next.

James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, the three main beneficiaries of Thuesday's changes, are all in their 30s. To paraphrase Mr Blair, they are the future now.

Certainly, Mr Brown had a golden opportunity to restore Darlington MP Alan Milburn or another senior Blairite such as Charles Clarke had he wanted to.
The fact that he passed up that opportunity means they are almost certainly not now returning to the Cabinet table – at least not under Mr Brown – and it will be interesting to see if they stand again at the next election.

The choice of 59-year-old retread Paul Murphy to head the Welsh Office appears to fly in the face of the accent on youth, but this may just turn out to be a relatively short-term appointment.

I still believe that a restructuring of the territorial posts into a "Department for Devolution" is on the cards at some point.

But there was something else that happened on Thursday that, amid the excitement of the Hain resignation, passed almost unnoticed, and it is to this that I want to devote the remainder of this week’s column.

It was an announcement from the Justice Minister Michael Wills of the results of a review of the different voting systems currently in use across the UK.

I doubt if it was a case of “burying bad news,” since the announcement had been scheduled for some time previously and Mr Hain’s resignation on that day was unplanned.

Either way, it concluded that voters in Scotland and Wales had been “confused” by the use of proportional representation for devolved elections, and ruled out its introduction for Westminster.

So what, you might think? Well, there is no region in the UK where this actually matters more than in the North East of England.

Almost half of people in the region who actually bother to vote do not support Labour, yet for the past three elections, the region has ended up with 28 Labour MPs, one Conservative, and one Liberal Democrat.

What this means is that, in 2005, it took 20,730 people in the North-East to elect one Labour MP, 214,414 to elect one Conservative, and 256,295 to send one Liberal Democrat to the Commons.

Or to put it another way, it took more than 12 times as many people to elect one Lib Dem MP in the region than it took to elect one Labour MP.

It is little wonder, then, that voter turnout in the region has continued to lag well behind the national average, at a time when wider political engagement is in any case at an all-time low.

The years of New Labour spin, culminating in the dodgy dossier which sent British soldiers to war on a false prospectus, have well-nigh destroyed the bond of trust between politicians and the public.

Mr Brown said at the start of his premiership that he wanted to restore that lost trust, yet the ongoing controversy over Labour funding and campaign donations have only compounded the situation.

Doing something to make people think their votes were actually worth something would, in my view, have been a good to way to start addressing it.

But there is another reason why Mr Brown should have had a fresh look at the voting system, not so much for reasons of principle as for reasons of realpolitik.

The next election is shaping up to be a bit like 1992 – a contest between a government that has been in a bit too long, and an opposition that hasn’t really yet earned the right to govern. In short, it has hung Parliament written all over it.

If Labour are going to need the Liberal Democrats in order to remain in power, they are also going to need to look again at electoral reform.

Mr Brown had a chance to prepare the ground for that this week. Just as with his failure to sack Mr Hain, he bottled it.

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1 comment:

carol42 said...

You did not publish my last comment so I don't suppose you will publish this one. Face facts: Brown is a complete dud, he will never allow anyone who might challenge him anywhere near the Cabinet. I agree with you about Milburn, instead he has surrounded himself with a cohort of totally loyal kids who have never done anything outside politics - the curse of Blair too, but his people learned in office and they are being ignored. By letting Browm take over without a contest Labour deserves all it will get. A real contest would have shown up his, now obvious weaknesses, Having known him from Scotland since the 70s I am not surprised but he sure duped his supporters in England. If the Party has any sense left they would get rid of him, but they won't - not quite as ruthless as as the Conservatives - pity.

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