PERHAPS orbiting around Gordon Brown’s planetary-sized brain is the aphorism, “To think too long about doing a thing becomes its undoing.”
Forgive me for returning to events of a fortnight ago, but this is my first opportunity in this column. Gordon Brown’s grim weekend of indecision followed by ineptitude is going to haunt his premiership. And the image of Iron Gordon, crumpled in a rusted heap following his exchanges with David Cameron at the Prime Minister’s questions that followed will become iconic. PMQs is just light entertainment, Downing Street aides have muttered in an effort at reassurance - not least for themselves. There’s a grain of truth in that. William Hague regularly beat up Tony Blair at the despatch box only to come out of the 2005 election with a net gain of just one MP.
But what has happened to Brown, just 100 days into his government, is far more wounding than being monstered by an old Etonian.
His moment of “doubt, hesitation and pain” - to quote Robert Browning’s supremely apt The Lost Leader - confirmed everything that those who have known Brown for 30 years have said about him - his indecisiveness. More damaging was the renewed and instant identification in the public mind of this government with spin and deceit, thus undermining the reputation for straightforwardness that it had been steadily building up over the summer. To draw analogies with the hapless John Major administration, I’d say that this was more of a “black Wednesday” moment than a “cones hotline” moment - more tragic than farcical.
The rapid turn of events earlier this month has revealed something profound about politics in Britain, rather than inside the Westminster bubble.
John Cruddas, the plain-talking Labour MP for Dagenham, has pointed out that Labour has lost 4.5 million voters during the Blair era. Despite all the hype about the so-called Brown bounce, the staggering turnaround in the opinion polls - you know, the ones Gordon wasn’t looking at - shows that Labour has not succeeded in winning significant numbers of those voters back.
The “Brown effect” promised by those who pushed inside the Labour Party for him to replace Blair earlier has shown itself to be extremely limited. Of course, there has been a recalibration with Blair’s departure, but the basic parameters of politics remain. That includes over the wars - Iraq, Afghanistan and the threatened attack on Iran.
The Stop the War demonstration two weeks ago, which broke the politically inspired ban on marching to Parliament, was a joyous success. The mobilisations against the war and occupation, of course, vary in size and strength. The underlying indignation that we were dragged into George Bush’s folly remains undimmed among the many millions who opposed the war from the outset. Moreover, for many millions of people, the war is not only a moral outrage, it symbolises all that is wrong with our truncated democracy and political system. How did we end up here and remain with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the majority of people opposed this crime?
At the same time, Brown’s neoliberal offensive, coupled with abandoning such social democratic staples as a meaningful inheritance tax, is putting the bonds between new Labour and organised labour under ever greater strain.
If you factor in how life and death issues such as climate change are leading many more - particularly young - people towards radical politics, you’re left with a positive assessment of the space for progressive politics, despite the convergence at the top of the three established parties.
In every arena - at meetings and rallies, on my radio show, in the current debates in Respect - I’m struck by how many people want a pluralist, democratic force to the left of Labour. It’s what those of us had in mind nearly four years ago when we founded Respect and I sense among considerable constituencies that the commitment to that approach has grown.
We’ve gone some way and we need to go a lot further. It’s a challenge to some of the habits that the traditional left has often lapsed into.
Salma Yaqoob, who is becoming more and more a force in the land, has reminded us eloquently that what will attract new forces into progressive politics is real collaborative working, a sense of coalition in which no component part dominates or exercises control. As someone who can be classed as part of the traditional left, I find these words fresh and crucial to act upon. That must also be so for organisations which are even more prone to establishing settled patterns of thinking and working.
These are the vital questions as we face the prospect of a Brown government which continues the worst of the Blair years and, in so doing, depresses working people so thoroughly that even Cameron’s Tories might look like a prospect in a year or two.
Can we extend and deepen a left coalition - which Respect has played a vital but by no means definitive or exclusive role in developing so far?
There are millions of disenfranchised working class people who need us to. And there are many thousands of activists, old and new, who want to be part of a truly inclusive left coalition, which, unlike Brown, can look forward to a glad, confident morning.