For many people the one thing Gordon Brown had going for him was that he wasn’t Tony Blair. But in less than a year Brown has managed to make himself more unpopular than Blair, both inside and outside the Labour Party.
He has managed to oversee electoral defeat after electoral defeat, most notably last week in Glasgow East.
The constituency was Labour’s third safest seat in Scotland and the 25th safest in Britain. If it can’t hold the line there, then Labour can’t hold the line anywhere.
While there is much froth in the media about plots to oust Brown, the crisis in Labour is not about Brown’s personality – or lack of it. It is a reflection of the deepening fury against his pro-rich government. Labour’s setbacks are a result of a protest at rising food and fuel prices and the abolition of the 10p tax band.
The worries at the top of Labour are so great that there are reports that some ministers are even taking soundings in the City about the possibility of company directorships.
Brown has also overseen the continued haemorrhaging of members from the party. The latest membership figure is a historic low of 158,000. Over 20,000 people have left since Brown became leader last year.
Brown rejected the growing calls for Labour to change direction and “re-engage” with ordinary people last weekend. The day after the by-election Labour held its national policy forum at Warwick university.
The 2004 “Warwick agreement” saw Labour make more than 50 pledges in return for £10 million from the unions.Most of their demands were ignored. This time they didn’t demand very much and got even less.
The unions went in with something like 130 demands. The discussion lasted until 5am on Monday.
Eventually, the union leaders accepted the government’s proposals for ID cards and 42 day detention. They also accepted government attacks on welfare, and its plan to build new nuclear power stations and more city academy schools.
In return they got a reduction of the age at which minimum wage applies from 22 to 21. The other promises are vague – a commitment to clean hospitals and a repetition of a pledge to extend parental leave.
There were no concessions over the anti-union laws. The forum did not even support proposals to allow unions to use email in ballots.
The Unison union’s demand for free school meals for primary school children was dropped in favour of a statement that councils should be encouraged to hold trials.
On health, a number of proposals to prevent further privatisation of the NHS were rejected with the consistent majority of 157 to four.
The agreement included the government’s commitment to the use of “voluntary and community organisation, social enterprises and the independent sector” to provide public services.
Labour also wants to extend privatisation to “other areas of healthcare including maternity services and general practice”.
The forum threw out demands for a windfall tax on fuel companies, the reopening of public sector pay deals and higher taxes for people earning more than £40,000.
Despite his crisis, Brown has received support from one sector of society. Richard Lambert, director general of the bosses’ CBI organisation, gleefully noted the government had “resisted the worst of the union demands”.
There is now a danger that the union leaders will increase the pressure on their members not to rock Labour’s boat in case it further weakens the government.
They will argue that strikes over public sector pay and other issues will see the Tories back in. But it is Labour’s right wing policies that will usher the Tories into office.
For instance, it was not the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9 that turned people against the Labour government.
In March 1977 Labour lost the Birmingham seat of Stechford on a 17.5 percent swing to the Tories. A month later Labour lost Ashfield to the Tories. It was a mining constituency where Labour had a 23,000 majority.
Then, as now, the strikes that followed were about people defending themselves from the crisis the Labour government was overseeing.
Brown and Labour’s leaders do not understand why they are in such a mess. Their instinct is to move further to the right to try to get out of their troubles. The Warwick meeting was a determined rejection by Brown and his acolytes of any policies that would benefit ordinary people.
This will only intensify Brown’s problems.
We need less loyalty to Labour and more determined action to defend ourselves from the government’s attacks. Across the labour movement, we need to back initiatives such as the People Before Profit Charter (see » Charter backed by workers, pensioners and students) and campaigns such as Public Services Not Private Profit.
We also need to debate how we can start to build an alternative to Labour.