Tom Brown - Only the spineless tremble in front of Alex the merely competent
Fights are not won by building up your opponent
BART Simpson, that much-misunderstood under- achiever, was diagnosed in one episode of the anarchic cartoon series as suffering from 'Phobophobia' – fear of fear itself. In Britain, we have a whole political party of bed-wetting Barts.
The Labour Party has allowed itself to get into such a funk that it is in danger of talking itself into defeat on all fronts, especially in Scotland. The current election of a Scottish leader and the impending Glenrothes by-election illustrate perfectly how a party that was super-confident 18 months ago is now having a mass nervous breakdown.
The language used by the leadership candidates is that of contestants who are vying for a poor second place, having already conceded the No 1 position to one Alex Salmond. And the nervousness over the timing of the by-election and selection of a candidate are symptoms of collective anxiety that Labour is in for another Glasgow East-style humiliation.
They are right to be concerned after months of disastrous by-election defeats, dreadful poll ratings, dire predictions from psephologists and panic-stricken near-mutiny in the Cabinet. But they have not a hope in hell of restoring their political fortunes if they run about like Private Frasers, gibbering: "We're a' doomed!"
Gordon Brown last week launched his political fightback, appropriately on a flight to the battlefront in Afghanistan, insisting: "We are going to go on and win." His trouble is that behind him he does not have ranks of determined ministers, MPs and MSPs; he has a bunch of self-obsessed Nervous Nellies, who are thinking of their own seats while wetting themselves at the prospect of fighting elections.
In Scotland, they tremble at the prospect of facing Alex the Terrible, the First Minister of their nightmares. The campaign literature for the three Scottish leadership contenders shows how he doth bestride political Scotland, including Labour, like a Colossus. Yet the truth is that, like the Wizard of Oz, he is not a terrifying figure but a rather ordinary individual hiding behind an outsize megaphone; it is only the mediocrity of his opposition that makes him look more than the competent but crafty politician he is.
Fights are not won by building up your opponent, yet the Scottish Labour leadership are taking the First Minister at his own inflated valuation of himself. Salmond is not SuperPol. As he preened in an over-revealing interview with Total Politics website last week: "You have probably noticed I am not short of confidence." That excess of confidence is leading him to over-reach himself in ways that are unappealing, nor will it obscure his government's failures to implement promises on police numbers, student loans or schools.
Just as pathetic is the gloom over Glenrothes from those 'insiders' who tell Brown the seat is already lost and urge him to concentrate on damage limitation. These doomsters recommend an early by-election to get it out of the way before his autumn relaunch. This is the counsel of despair, accepting that this long-held Labour seat will be lost and as one wet blanket said: "It's the SNP that have a 10,000 majority, not us."
Brown rejects this pessimistic prediction and prefers the diagnosis of Henry McLeish that, given the right attention, his former seat is still winnable for Labour. Glenrothes is not Glasgow East, and enough of the late John MacDougall's 10,664 majority can be held, depending on the Government's rescue measures for those hardest hit by the economic crisis, along with the selection of the right runner. Expect Labour to take their time to trawl for a local candidate, who is respected in the community and is untainted by past failures.
The real rot is at the centre.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband's blatant pitch for the leadership has done little for his own chances, but damaged his party's. Lesser MPs mutter that the party has a "death wish" and is "stumbling towards defeat" and Blairite Culture Secretary Andy Burnham says: "The problem for us is becoming too self-critical, defensive or defeatist… we should have more pride in ourselves."
How can Labour win back the confidence of the electorate if they cannot communicate confidence in themselves? How can they hope to win if they cannot convince themselves they can be winners?
Brown's urgent task is to graft a new backbone into his party and give them reasons to be cheerful (admittedly, a difficult task for one whose default expression resembles Don Quixote, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance). Labour's need to redefine what it stands for and what it can do for the people has become more urgent and is summed up by a Compass/Progress fringe meeting at next month's conference: "Winning for a purpose, what is a fourth term for?"
The hard-pressed Prime Minister should model his autumn offensive on Marshall Foch at the first battle of the Marne: "My centre is giving way. My right is in retreat. Situation excellent. I shall attack!" Foch's troops won and it became known as 'The Miracle of the Marne'.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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