This afternoon, Charles Clarke sent an email to colleagues which expressly fires a new shot at Gordon Brown’s leadership.
* “We face an electoral defeat which could well give the Conservatives the next decade and more…unless Labour acts now we are likely to spend the next ten years reflecting on the consequences from the impotence of opposition.”
* “All the evidence suggests that Brown’s leadership reduces Labour support, that alternative leaders would improve our ratings, and that an election determined by voters’ answers to the question “Do you want Gordon Brown to be Prime Minister for the next five years?” would further shrink Labour support.”
* “The ‘class war’ approach is explicitly designed to rack up ‘core Labour’ votes in core Labour areas and to protect the position of the current leadership…Labour cannot win on this basis. We have to remain a Party with the widest possible appeal, which does not rely for support simply upon one particular group, faction or social class.”
* “Most senior Labour leaders have had little faith in Gordon Brown’s leadership for a considerable time but over the last year have remained silent, and even professed support…[but] the implications of the status quo are crystal clear – a smashing defeat for Labour and poorer lives for the people we seek to serve.”
* “Yet the General Election is eminently winnable for Labour under a new leader. We still have the overall policies and approach which are best suited to meet the challenges of both the current crises and the future, even though we have not recently been successful in communicating them clearly.”
* “In Parliament and elsewhere an overwhelming majority of Labour opinion believes that in this position Labour’s chances would be significantly improved if Gordon Brown were to stand down…Over Christmas there have been signs that this strength of opinion is understood in the Cabinet. The New Year will be the time to ensure that the overwhelming feeling which does exist is turned into the action which brings about the necessary change.”
Clarke’s position is clear: Brown must go if Labour is to stand so much as a chance of winning in 2010 – and he must go now.
As we know, Charles Clarke has never been a fan of Gordon Brown. But the timing of his latest shot is pertinent: insiders have long spoken of the likelihood of a quick leadership succession very early in 2010. Unfortunately for Charles Clarke, this is now plainly not going to happen.
Evidently, it is very unlikely as things stand that Labour will win the general election. But does he really believe that that will change with a new face at the top? Clarke says himself that many of the right policies and values are already in place. To those who will vote elsewhere this time out, that won’t matter anyway. While this country is clearly not aching for a right wing Tory government, the truth is that, for too many, Labour has had its chance. And for too many, the party has blown it. More people than Gordon Brown were complicit in that missed opportunity.
Many will say Charles Clarke is an irrelevance, that his time has been and gone, and that these attacks will do Labour more harm than good. I tend to agree with that last assessment. I’ve repeatedly made my own feelings towards Gordon Brown’s leadership known – but the opportunity for change has surely passed.
If the likely candidates were not willing to stand up for fear of failure, retribution or accusations of disloyalty last June, then they are certainly not going to do so now, four months before an election – and nor should they. That’s not just because they are too tentative or timid, although they are. It’s because they are all too aware that the time for change in the party is not now: for want of a better analogy, you don’t change the manager the night before the European Cup Final.
Yes, a leadership challenge might still invigorate the party and save seats. But it would also bring the very real danger of division when we need unity more than ever. Yes, it might refocus attention on the good that Labour can still do in office and bring new debates and supportive coalitions to the top table. But it would also constitute an acceptance that three of the twelve years of Labour government were a complete failure, which is not wholly true.
Of course, that doesn’t negate that much of what Clarke says is of course right: there are the elephants in the room. But Gordon Brown is only one of those clunky weights to voters: Clarke himself and any number of other cabinet ministers are equally disliked by large sections the public.
The truth is that we are all responsible now for communicating why we need a Labour government – not just the leader. That’s something Charles Clarke would do well to consider. We need to show that, like him or loathe him, the Prime Minister made repeately sound calls on the economy, that most important of engines – though not the only one – for our general national wellbeing. For better or for worse, we are stuck with the leader, a leader whose strengths may not always be so visible as his weaknesses, but one who nonetheless has surprised us before and can do so again.