This week’s apparent coup, catalysed by the incendiary email sent to Labour MPs from former Ministers Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon, has been derided from all sides – both Left and Right – as another example of Gordon Brown’s weak leadership and his inability to control a divided party in the crucial months before an election. The case against the agitators is obvious: they have exposed the deep dissatisfaction with Gordon Brown even within his own party, yet done so in such a cack-handed manner that no credible alternative has stood to replace him. However, in retrospect, its impact may not have been nearly as bad for the Labour Party as some have argued.
The first reason why the coup might well prove an unexpected boon for the Labour party is that it has provided a crucial opportunity for the centrists in the cabinet to assert themselves. In the febrile few hours between the release of the letter to the general public, and the eventual announcements of ministerial loyalty to Mr Brown, several key concessions were eked out. Brown is seen by his supporters as a man of principle, and by his detractors as a relentless Stalinist. Either way, most would agree that once his mind is set on an idea, he is largely intractable on the issue. Over the past few months, Brown has had his ear bent increasingly by the overbearing Ed Balls, an old ally from Brown’s Treasury days. With Ed Miliband, another of Brown’s key collaborators, effectively sidelined by his role in writing Labour’s next manifesto, the insidious influence of Balls has been able to grow.
It is Balls who is seen as behind the publicised drive from Labour to “sure up the core vote”: by directing policy announcements and soundbites towards the less-well-off. This move is ostensibly reactionary. It represents an inward-looking Labour party, shying away from the Middle Classes who Tony Blair so successfully wooed with his brand of aspirational socialism. A party that seeks to represent the country should do so by appealing to as wide a selection of the public as possible. Contrary to the contentions of those who favour the Balls strategy, this is possible to do without compromising Labour’s values of social justice and equality of opportunity. Blair showed that it is possible for the Middle Classes to care about those who are less well off than them, and today’s Labour party should not be afraid of doing the same.
The coup allowed Jack Straw, a man who has seen more elections than most in the cabinet, and the irrepressible Peter Mandelson, amongst others, to steer Brown away from this regressive and highly damaging electoral policy. It barely mattered that the coup itself never looked like getting off the ground. The point was that Brown and his inner-circle were sufficiently panicked in the period immediately after Hoon and Hewitt’s announcement that they granted the wishes of the Cabinet’s centrists. Some might suggest that it is a mark of Brown’s diminution in power within his cabinet that he was unable, this time, to exact the endorsement of his colleagues on pain of dismissal, in the manner that he did after James Purnell’s resignation last year.
‘Hoon and Hewitt’s actions have ended up not so much as creative destruction, but rather causing a controlled forest fire.’
But this is precisely where the genius of the Hoon/Hewitt coup lay. By creating a storm in a teacup, they were able to give dissatisfied senior Ministers an opportunity to exact their demands from Brown, without fear of any recrimination. Because the coup itself was so low-key, Brown had no ability to strong-arm key Ministers into rushed statements of loyalty. The upshot of this is that Labour’s election strategy has been wrested from the clutches of Ed Balls and back towards the centre – where Labour stands most chance of success.
The second benefit of the coup is that it effectively puts paid to the prospect of any further leadership challenges prior to the election. The waters have been tested, and found to be distinctly lukewarm. Given the lack of support for the prospect of even an internal leadership ballot, it is inconceivable that any of Brown’s rivals would now launch a further attack. Gordon Brown can now concentrate on running the country, and fighting an election campaign.
The coup itself might have ostensibly appeared a damp squib, but the positive reverberations may continue to be felt well into the new year for the Labour Party. Hoon and Hewitt’s actions have ended up not so much as creative destruction, but rather causing a controlled forest fire. The momentary mayhem instigated by their letter has avoided any future challenges in the run up to the election, and in fact enabled Labour’s centrists to steer the party back towards a far more intelligent electoral strategy – whether they meant it to or not.