It’s possible that the David Abrahams funding scandal will come to be seen as an important stage in the long, slow death of the Labour Party.
This isn’t because of its possible effects on the next general election. Through the summer Labour was well ahead in the opinion polls – and another dramatic switch back to Labour can’t be ruled out.
In fact the main feature of the political scene since Tony Blair stood down almost six months ago has been the extreme volatility of public opinion.
Gordon Brown’s recent troubles set in when he backed down from calling a snap election in early October. After a succession of disasters, the gap by which Labour lags behind the Tories in the polls has now reached levels last seen under Margaret Thatcher.
Brown has been badly wounded, though I doubt if he is finished. But this shifting struggle among the big political machines is not what’s interesting about the scandal over Abrahams and his attempts to conceal his £650,000 contributions to the Labour Party.
The real story is what it reveals about New Labour – a party scrabbling after money from unprepossessing businessmen. Abrahams’ fingerprints are all over the campaigns for leader and deputy leader, even though Brown’s team had the good sense to tear up a cheque from one of his intermediaries.
A similar pattern has emerged in Scottish Labour. Charlie Gordon has been forced to resign as the party’s transport spokesman because he solicited an illegal donation to Wendy Alexander’s leadership campaign from a retail developer resident in the Channel Islands.
One of the oddities in all this is that both Brown and Alexander won the British and Scottish Labour leaderships respectively by default because no one stood against them.
Why did they need so much money for non-campaigns? And why not raise funds in the traditional way, from trade unionists and party activists?
The answer to both these questions is that New Labour is essentially an apparatus of professional politicians and their staffs operating in complete detachment from the organised working class.
One symptom of this is the disgraced party general secretary Peter Watt, who was forced to resign last week. When I first saw the photos of this obscure figure I thought it must be a sign of age that Labour Party general secretaries seemed to be getting younger.
But they are getting younger – Watt is 37 and his predecessor Matt Carter is 35. Carter was implicated in the loans for peerages affair. I remember him from when I worked at York university. He was a student there in the mid-1990s, writing a PhD thesis on the philosophical foundations of ethical socialism (you couldn’t make this stuff up).
Labour Party general secretaries used to be substantial political figures in their own right with a track record in the labour movement. Often they had been trade union general secretaries.
I don’t want to idealise them. The legendary Morgan Phillips, who held the post from 1944 to 1961, had been a left wing South Wales miner in the era of the 1926 general strike. But he was a right wing witch-hunter when he ran the Labour machine.
Nevertheless, the decline of the general secretaryship is a symptom of how Labour has changed. Now it is a job for ambitious young political operatives eager to do the will of the big beasts in Downing Street.
And Brown’s reaction to the latest scandal is essentially to reinforce this process of detaching the Labour Party from the labour movement.
Desperate to bring “closure” to the Abrahams affair, he is apparently planning to concede to the Tories’ demand that contributions by individual unions to Labour be capped at £50,000.
The long term effect will be to further reinforce the domination of politics by big business and its lobbyists demanding favours in exchange for their contributions.
It is, however, ironic that in the short term, the decision to return Abrahams’ money has forced New Labour to go cap in hand to the unions for the money to pay party staff wages.
Only the utterly naive or desperate can now believe the promises that Brown’s leadership would mark Labour’s return to policies of direct benefit to ordinary working people.
As he struggles on, mired in scandal, it becomes even clearer how great is the responsibility of those of us who have pledged to build a political alternative to New Labour.