I want to start this post with a confession sure to rile most (if not all): I actually quite like Charles Clarke. He is a good communicator and an able strategist who played a key role in modernising the Labour Party, firstly as Neil Kinnock’s Chief of Staff and then as Chair of the Party. By all accounts, he has also been a good MP for Norwich South. It is because I like him that I wince when I see him making such a fool out of himself, as he did yesterday.
Reading Clarke’s letter, it is striking how much of Clarke’s actual analysis is correct: we have missed key opportunities for Labour to set out a coherent and clear-cut vision; we haven’t taken the fight to the Tories sufficiently or exposed their economic illiteracy and the polls are not narrowing quickly, decisively or consistently enough to provide very much comfort. He is also right that many people are sitting still and keeping quiet, waiting to see what happens.
But Clarke’s poignant and challenging diagnosis prescribes a medicine worse than the malady. He is far too quick to attribute our problems to Gordon Brown when the reality is that the entire Government, PLP and Labour movement must shoulder portions of responsibility. “Gordon’s got to change or we’ve got to change Gordon” may be a catchy soundbite to smugly leak to a journalist, but it doesn’t actually help Labour move forward. The public do not forgive parties which spend more time talking to themselves than the voters: we cannot go into a general election opposing each other rather than the Tories.
Strikingly, there is still nothing in Clarke’s diatribe about actual policy at all. The letter does not nail a flag to anything whatsoever. Here, Clarke starts to sound dangerously like the Tories: blustering, outraged and personality-obsessed, lacking any sort of policy alternatives or radical thinking.
The reality is that, like 95% of the PLP, Clarke doesn’t have major problems with the steps that have been taken to rescue and rejuvenate the British economy. If Clarke had a problem with areas of policy he would set them out, as Tony Blair’s and Charles Clarke’s own critics would always do. So the fact that he doesn’t mention it at all suggests that this is more about Clarke’s vendetta against Gordon Brown than the starting gun for a serious or credible debate on the Party’s direction. His energy and skills would be much better spent identifying how Labour can engage the British public in a conversation about a new economic settlement.
Clarke is right when he says that “from the beginning of 2010 we need a renewed Labour Party which can offer the people of Britain a genuine and positive choice at the ballot box”. He is right because we are preparing for the fight of our movement’s life. The prize is absolutely immense, beyond our wildest dreams in 1997: a fourth term, with the Tories (the oldest and meanest political party in the world) vanquished as a political force in Britain, Cameron almost certainly dumped, a referendum on electoral reform, and the illusion of the Sun and Murdoch as kingmakers smashed forever.
To win this prize, we all need to talk positively, energetically and honestly about our past achievements and our plans for the future. Changing the leader doesn’t make it any easier to change our country.