This is a terrible plight for Gordon Brown – and Labour

By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 23/09/06):

Yesterday’s Guardian poll shot an arrow through the heart of the Labour party. It says that Labour is on course to lose the next election. It says that Gordon Brown hasn’t got what it takes to turn things around. It implies that no one else in the Labour party has, either. It crystallises everything anxious Labour activists have been saying to themselves on the eve of the party conference in Manchester – and then it adds some. It is hard to think of a more pivotal political opinion poll in recent times.

The killer findings tumble off the page. Among people who voted Labour in 2005 – and remember there were only 9.5 million of them even then, Labour’s second lowest total since the second world war – the pollsters ICM found that 38% think it is now time for a change, that 44% think Labour has run out of ideas, and that 42% think the party doesn’t deserve to win next time. This isn’t the Labour vote down to the bedrock. It isn’t the Labour vote getting soft. It is the political equivalent of climate change. Next time round, Labour is in danger of attracting less support than at any time since women got the vote.

If that looks bad, then focus on the findings in the 100 Labour marginals. Here things are even worse. In the Halifaxes, Hampsteads and Harlows that Labour depends on if it is to form another government, a mere 29% of all voters think Labour is taking the country in the right direction. The same puny proportion thinks Labour is working for “people like me”. This is evidence of electoral erosion on an epic scale. Fully 72% of voters in these seats say it is time for a change. Labour MPs shouldn’t kid themselves. The writing is on the wall.

Some will object that this is exaggeration. After all, hasn’t Labour narrowed the gap on the Conservatives in the same poll? Historically, this latest Tory lead of four points – 36% against 32% for Labour – is small potatoes for a midterm, surely retrievable by the election. And it certainly looks a lot less threatening than the nine-point gap in August that sent some Labour MPs into a tailspin. When you consider the month that Labour has inflicted on itself, it is actually the Tory rating that looks pretty dismal. With its in-built electoral advantage, surely Labour can reclaim the initiative in time for the election?

It is a view that rests more on faith than on fact. The best answer to it was given by Gavyn Davies in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. Always look at the trends, he argued. David Cameron has finally helped the Tories to break out of the ratings box in which Tony Blair imprisoned them in 1994. Overall, the Tory trend is now decisively upwards. Labour, meanwhile, has been trending decisively downwards, at an average rate of more than two points a year. This week’s poll bears that out. The Tory share may have fallen month on month, but Labour’s has barely benefited. Overall, the dynamic of the polls remains consistently in the Tories’ favour.

But what about Labour’s shiny new pre-conference mood? Some in the cabinet think the two weeks of madness over the leadership at the start of the month have been cathartic. The ugly tensions and resentments of years came to a head in this latest Blair-Brown tussle, say these ministers. It was a terrible time. Now, though, the boil has been lanced. Both sides have learned what is at stake. Hostile briefings, outriders and coups are therefore things of the past. Labour is now in the grip of collective self-discipline, albeit born of terror.

There is something in the claim. MPs agree that the overwhelming message from the Labour grassroots has been to “get your act together”. That was the mood at Thursday’s cabinet too, where Labour’s pollster Philip Gould warned ministers to stop their private argument and get back to the big challenges. And it will surely be the mood at the Manchester conference too. There is zero chance of another coup attempt for a while. No one, Blairite or Brownite, outrider or loyal foot soldier, expects anything other than a conference on best behaviour. The press will hate it. It will be unity all the way.

Yet Labour has learned something else in the past four weeks. It is laid raw and bare in this week’s poll. And it won’t go away whether they want it to or not. That something is that Brown may not be the answer to the Labour party’s woes after all. In a devastating series of match-ups with Cameron, the public has weighed Labour’s heir apparent in the balance and found him wanting, both as a political leader and as a man. When Labour delegates cheer the chancellor next week, as they will, there will also be a voice somewhere in their heads reminding them that the public sees Brown as arrogant, dishonest, selfish, treacherous and unpleasant.

It is a horrible plight for both Brown and Labour. But the great risk facing Labour has to be stated plainly. That risk is that every step Labour takes towards the Brown succession is now also a step towards electoral defeat at Cameron’s hands. The great unspoken tension running through next week’s conference will be that Labour’s electability is now hostage to the inevitability of Brown’s leadership. It is in the nature of any party conference, and of this one at this time in particular, for such threats not to be addressed openly. But the issue will be in people’s heads.

Watching Labour hoping that Cameron will somehow go away is a bit like watching the last two US presidential elections. In each of those contests, the Democrats were convinced that if they could hit the right policy buttons, they would be able to defeat George Bush. What they did not, could not and did not want to grasp was that in modern American presidential politics, the essence of the campaign is the presentation of personality not policy and that in match-ups against Al Gore and John Kerry, Bush had it every time.

British elections are not quite like that. But there are sufficient similarities for the personality question to matter. Perceived likability unlocks electability. One of the reasons Blair dominated British politics for so long was that, where personality was concerned, he had it. It is equally clear that one of Cameron’s great strengths is that he has it too. The message of the poll is that the voters have sized Brown up and don’t like what they see. It may be miserably demeaning that modern politics has come to this. But if Brown hasn’t got it, how does he acquire it? And if he can’t acquire it, who else has Labour got?