There is a bold, reviving leader's speech that might yet salvage Labour. It just can't be delivered by Gordon Brown
'Things Can Only Get Better" was Labour's strangely double-edged theme song in 1997. Now things couldn't get worse, at 15% and below Ukip. How can Wales have gone Tory? Good grief, only 8% voted Labour in the entire south-east. Crunching the numbers for the next general election, YouGov says Labour has to get 20% more to win. It looks virtually impossible. That's what realists in the parliamentary Labour party said tonight – but the rest banged the desks as if loyalty would save their skins. They bottled it.
Gordon Brown is not Labour's only problem, but he is the greatest obstacle to recovery. Delusory denial grips those still defending him, as they warn defenestration would lead to meltdown. But that's already here – crack up, collapse, catastrophe, the nightmare is real. When he ducked the election, he said he needed time to lay out his vision. Eighteen months later, none has emerged. Will they believe he can do it now?
Let's look at the Brown defenders' best excuses. No, this appalling result was not part of a Europe-wide rebellion against incumbents caused by the global crash. Other governments in the same plight surged ahead in support – Merkel in Germany, Sarkozy in France, Berlusconi in Italy, Tusk in Poland. The British government is almost alone among big EU countries to take a heavy hit. Nor is it a simple sweep to the right: Merkel and Sarkozy won by taking more radical social democratic action than Brown did, by nationalising the banks, with higher social protection for the unemployed and more state intervention, squeezing parties on their left by turning leftwards. How Sarko railed against the "dictatorship of the market", while Brown missed the bloody mood and apologised to the CBI for the "regrettable" 50p tax rate. He failed to seize the anti-bonus, anti-banker spirit of the times that should have been Labour's moment.
His guards have cleverly drawn a red line around Brown, warning the left and the unions that this is a Blairite plot to seize control of the party and march it to a public-sector privatising, individualist, anti-state future. Look at Blears, Flint and Purnell and flinch from this plot, they say. Since potential new leaders are all silent, the left can fear that Blairism lurks beneath all their skins. If the left is bought off with this confected threat, they should remember that the party is well left of the government: Blears came last in the deputy leadership. Labour in its present mood will not elect a rightwinger if Brown goes.
Pause a moment and ask: what exactly is radical or leftwing about Gordon Brown? There never was a whisker between him and Blair, beyond jealousy. It was a fiction that deceived many, and perhaps he deceived himself in those impatient years of briefings that he would do things differently. His private finance initiative projects, his ill-advised public-private partnership for the tube, abolition of the 10p tax rate to give a tax break to higher earners, 42-day detention without trial, ID cards and springing a Trident replacement with no discussion on future foreign policy? Every time the rightwing press suggests he is betraying Blair's modernising agenda, he does something to prove it's not true, such as the third runway at Heathrow.
Why is the Daily Mail's Paul Dacre a frequent family visitor? Under Brown's chancellorship, Britain became yet more unequal, and the child poverty target was abandoned. All the "golden years" GDP growth went for the rich few, not for the many. Of course Brown did not intend that, but he never had the political courage to make the tough choices that would have sent money flowing away from the rich towards the rest.
To govern from the left requires a bravery he lacked to face down the power of money. Watch Jon Cruddas, Compass and the rest carefully: if Labour MPs on the left lack the courage to replace Brown, don't let them imagine it's in the cause of progress. If they put a sectarian fight against Blairites (who are in truth no threat), before saving the party from ruin, there will be nothing left to squabble over in a year.
Finally, the most effective frightener is the threat that appointing a new leader must mean an instant election. At 15% in the polls, that looks like suicide – and Peter Mandelson repeats it over and over. But why would an election be necessary? Imagine a new leader stepping out in July who says this: "Friends, there will be an election and a referendum on constitutional reform. I relinquish the injustice of the prime minister choosing the date: from now on elections will always be on the first Sunday in May, with fixed parliaments. Before then, we will clean up expenses and every sitting Labour MP will undergo reselection. A convention on the constitution and on liberty will bring in clean party funding: democracy will not be in hock to the whim of millionaires. We will have an elected Lords, sweep away obscurantist flummery in the Commons and devolve more powers. This parliament that made a mess of things must clean it up before it goes. A referendum on proportional representation deserves time for the arguments to be put fairly.
'But above all, as a new prime minister, give me time to lay out my priorities. In a time of hardship we will share the burdens more fairly, protect the most vulnerable better, make sure benefits and the minimum wage are pegged to earnings levels in perpetuity. Green jobs, already begun, will be increased with more housebuilding – and no, there will be no third runway. All we do from now on will be for cleaner, greener and fairer government. I will apologise for things we have done wrong, so you may better believe me when I boast of all we have done well. There is much to be proud of, and much that will be put at risk if we don't sing the praises of the considerable good Labour has done: Sure Start is just one emblem. Don't let anyone say the money was wasted or that the state should be shrunk. We stand for all the important things in life that we can only buy together – health, education, safe streets, beautiful parks and the long fight to stop climate change."
That's not so hard is it? But Brown can't and won't do it. He is too damaged now to gain from any green shoots emerging in the spring. He has failed badly, impossible to change. Tonight he promised yet again to be "open" amid a flurry of appeasing promises. Surely they will come to their senses? I still doubt the Labour party is so useless that it will let Brown lead them to destruction at the next election.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016