Monday, June 25, 2007

Half-term report: Labour

Time, I think, for a bit of an appraisal of the three main parties at this moment of transition. The arrival of a new leader for Labour, the first sign of wobbles for the Tories, and a trip further into the crypt for the Lib Dems. Labour first.

Brown has taken over as party leader with two recent developments: the election of Harriet Harman as Deputy, and the publishing of a poll showing a small Labour lead. New leader, a new policy focus and a new sense of unity and purpose in the party: maybe a 2008 election might even be on the cards. Well, I’m not convinced. As I argued the other day, I don’t really buy the line that Gordon Brown is a political genius. Character traits that are in some ways admirable in a Chancellor or cabinet Minister can be disastrous to a Prime Minister.

Brown’s shown a tendency to micro-manage (Charles Clarke’s story about the faxing of a 25 page list of corrections to a speech he was supposed to be making a scant hour beforehand is particularly instructive), an unwillingness to listen to advice that doesn’t square with his prejudices (read Tom Bowyer for copious examples – or Jonathon Freedland here) and a distinct lack of the common touch. Blair had a gift of defusing enemies, both in the House of Commons tearoom and in the media. Brown has never displayed much of this – despite his apparent warmth and charm within his intimate group.

So much for Brown. Whether he is an evil political genius or a great clunking fist, Brown’s true test will come when he has to deal with dear of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. How will a character who has dealt in the long-planned play cope with the impromptu decision? We shall see.

Harman as deputy is a call that no-one saw coming. Fired from cabinet very early on for her combination of poor relations with Frank Field and failure to get Brown onside over the Child Benefit cuts, shes hardly had a stellar career under Blair. Over the campaign for deputy leader, she was most notable for implying that expensive handbags should be banned. Such impeccably liberal instincts should serve her well - though I doubt Gordon's about to offer her a seat in Cabinet.

The poll showing a Labour lead should also be treated with caution - as Mike Smithson demonstrates. For what it's worth, my feeling is that Labour have showed a bounce back in polling largely because they have dominated all political media coverage for the last couple of weeks. As the other parties fade into the background, the saturation coverage of Labour will have helped. This isn't a trick that can be repeated: the first few days and weeks of a new leader are generally as good as it gets. When Brown starts to get consistently hostile coverage over government actions is when it's time to evaluate his popularity. People who believe that the days of division and splits within the party are now a thing of the past should take note of two things: once a party gets a taste for rebellion, it's very hard to get the toothpaste back in the tube. The second thing, is that's precisely what contemporary pundits were saying about John Major.

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