Saturday, September 22, 2007

Will Gordon join George in the footnotes of history?

It's a fair bet that George Canning (left) has occasionally occupied the thoughts of Gordon Brown recently. Mr Canning was, by all accounts, a fine public speaker, a brilliant military strategist and a practical joker. His long record of public service isn't what he is remembered for, however.

Political anoraks with the highest tog rating remember old George because he holds the record as the British prime minister who served for the shortest period - 119 days. He is a footnote in British political history.

The reason why I say it is a fair bet that Gordon Brown has been thinking about George Canning recently is because if Gordon gets wrong his big decision about the election date, then Gordon will join George in the footnotes. If Gordon Brown calls an election for October 25th, and loses, he will have been premier for 120 days - a day longer than George.

But unlike George, who was removed from office by the grim reaper via pneumonia, Gordon will forever be remembered as the shortest serving Prime Minister removed from office by himself.

"Gordon Brown" will join "Eddie the Eagle" as by-words for farcical incompetence in the English language lexicon. ("Did you do any good in the snooker last night, Dave?" "No, mate, I Gordon Browned it, I'm afraid".)

And Gordon won't want that.

So the memory of George Canning, as well as that of Jim Callaghan (British history's "shorty" Labour prime minister) will have been weighing heavily on Gordon's mind. It's all very well talking about one brilliant ICM poll, but general election campaigns can take on a life of their own. Another banking crisis, more continued foot and mouth outbreaks (there was another affected farm announced today), one or two "events, dear boy" and a lucky break for the opposition parties could all sweep Labour from power on October 25th. Or, at least, hobble them with a wafer-thin majority.

Douglas Alexander says Labour have the "cash and organisation" to go the polls in October. That's interesting. A few weeks ago, when I last bothered to check, Labour had a debt of £20 million. The last general election cost them £20 million. So if you assume that a campaign of about half the duration of the last one will cost them about half the amount, that's £10 million needed for an October campaign. Lord Sainsbury has recently given them £2 million and they say that they've had lots of other donations recently. Let's be optimistic for them and assume they have recently slashed their debt to, say, £15 million. So an October poll would leave them back where they were a few months ago - with a debt of £25 million. Their bank managers or loaners seemed just about ready to live with that sort of debt at that time, so one can assume that they will live with a level of £25 million debt again.

So, Labour can just about finance a quick election. (The Tories, however, will probably have more money at their disposal.) But I wouldn't like to be their bank manager. £25 million is quite a debt. But, then again, they will have four years in which to pay it (or a good chunk of it) back before the next election, hopefully (for them).

They're in the realms of knife-edge finances, though. (But then again, I will stop there on the finances subject, before someone shouts "Michael Brown!" at me).

There is another risk with going to the country in October. The great British public, roused from its comfy armchair to walk down to the polling station on a blustery, cold autumnal day might actually come up with this collective thought: "We went down to the polls just two and a half years ago. Why on earth is that Scots-porridge oat Brown forcing us out into the cold, down to the polls so soon?"

It's a good question. There's a good answer. Because Brown is a new prime minister and would like a nice new shiny mandate from you, oh great British voter, thank you very much.

But then the great British voter might just reply: "Yes, but we didn't force Blair to leave office - you did, you collossal numpty", before putting their cross against a candidate from any party except Labour. After all, when you go down to your local pub these days, is your entry impeded as you are pushed back by an almighty gust of wind caused by the assembled populace angrily shouting "Brown must go to the polls now!" ? Of course, not - normal people hardly mention the subject.

Even if Brown wins an October election we will still be left with a lingering question. Why did we use up all that time and money and run all that risk (money markets, temporarily paralysed civil service etc) of an election on October 25th 2007 when, according to our constitution, such as it is, we didn't need to have one until May 5th 2010?

Look at it that way and you find yourself sleep-walking inexorably towards a huge neon sign flashing the words "FIXED TERMS" on it. Local councils have them. The Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly have fixed terms. A few old biddies sitting round in a lounge in Philidelphia 220 years ago agreed on fixed terms for those governing our cousins across the pond.

So why the Sam Hill do we still have this refrain of "guess the election date" playing on as an almost constant leitmotif to British politics? It's insane.

One consideration which may be kicking it's way back and forwards through the brain space of our dear Prime Minister may be this. Will the traditional Labour vote hold? Well he might ponder over this. As Ming Campbell called it, "Blue Labour" is lucky to have any of its traditional supporters still voting for it.

Is the Labour party coming together now in Bournemouth one that would be recognised by Keir Hardie, or Harold Wilson or Clement Atlee if they, by some divine happenstance, alighted there? Well, if they bumped into Dennis Skinner or Bob Crowe they would feel at home.

If they bumped into Labour minister Digby, Lord Jones or Labour MP Quentin Davies they might immediately give their excuses and leave, assuming they had mistakenly stumbled in on the Conservative conference.

It's not just the personalities. The conference itself is changing. This will be the last time that the conference will be able to debate and vote on "contemporary motions". There are other changes also in the offing. Gordon Brown enthusiastically advocates those changes in an article in today's Guardian (which is helpfully succeeded with the note "Gordon Brown is the prime minister").

In fact, the gist of Brown's argument is sound. Hand the power to decide policy to all the party members - not just the conference representatives. Very laudable. I am not sure the way he intends to do it is consistent with this aim, however: "A one-member, one-vote ballot every four years on the party programme".

Indeed, if you read Tony Benn's interpretation of the internal party constitutional proposals, it seems Brown is as usual, perhaps, being devious. He is, cynics would suggest, smuggling through a move to silence the conference so that it can't mess up a Blue Labour government by injecting any pink or red into it:

If the new proposals - now endorsed by the NEC and apparently some major trade unions - are accepted, delegates will only be allowed to identify issues they want looked at by the policy forums, and the manifesto that emerges will be put to a referendum of party members to accept or reject in full, with no possibility of amendment. This would complete the New Labour project under which the conference becomes a platform for ministers and a few handpicked delegates - and, of course, a big trade fair. There would be no point in joining the party locally or affiliating as a union in the hope of discussing policy.

But that's Brown's "new politics" for you. Just like Gordon's "Big Tent", where he involves people from other parties just as long as they are the ones likely to wind up their respective parties, Gordon's "Big conversation" will involve any debate as long as Gordon ends up winning it.

Brown says the new conference process will end "resolutions without solutions".

Well, you only need to look at this year's conference agenda, at what is on it, and, more tellingly, what is not on it, to see what Gordon Brown wants to avoid. The Unison union has proposed a "contemporary" motion saying that the equal pay law has not redressed the inequality of women in low paid jobs. It also attacks Hazel Blears' green paper which calls for councils to become "enabling authorities", no longer providing public services themselves. The GMB union criticises the management of state-owned Remploy for creating a "sense of insecurity and trauma, and...the cruellest harassment of already very vulnerable workers".

And look what "contemporary motions" were dropped like hot potatoes from the conference agenda this year: several highly critical of the government's stewardship of the NHS, one criticising British military aid to Columbia, oh, and one slating the government for allowing the US to use the Menwith Hill base in Yorkshire for a new missile system. (What was it Ming said about sneaking "out a short statement on the last day of Parliament signing us up to host America’s Son of Star Wars on British soil?")

So it is quite clear that Brown is attempting to muzzle the Labour party conference. This means more Blue Labour and more injustices and Tory-lite policies like the ones which Ming listed in his speech last Thursday. I can't see traditional Labour voters standing for this for much longer. Many have already stopped voting Labour. I expect more to do so.

So, Gordon Brown cannot completely rest on his laurels. He cannot be entirely confident that, if he goes to the polls on October 25th, he will escape the company of George Canning in the altogether chilly environs of the footnotes of British political history.

Oh, and, by the way, George Canning was a Tory. Very appropriate company for Gordon.

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