Decline takes some beating

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Labour is heading for defeat according to Michael Meacher. And he and everyone still using an Old Labour compass should know all about losing, says political editor Chris Fisher.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Labour Party membership has fallen to under 200,000 and has been halved since 1997 when Tony Blair won power. As a succinct yet eloquent statement of disillusionment with New Labour rule that decline takes some beating. The election of Mr Blair as Labour's leader in 1994 created a wave of new support after 15 years of Tory rule. The party's membership surged from 265,000 in that year to 407,000 three years later. But the latest figure is 198,000.

Much of the hope of the mid-1990s has turned to numbness, despair and rancour and the last two characteristics were given quite an airing at the weekend at a conference held by the left-wing campaign group Compass. There was gloomy muttering about Labour heading for electoral defeat and the opposition benches. And former environment minister Michael Meacher articulated this feeling in a BBC studio. "I think there is a widespread feeling in the party, which I share, that if we continue like this we are not going to win the next election", he declared.

In noting these developments, the prime minister and his entourage are likely to conclude that the Compass event was essentially an Old Labour gathering made up of people who never liked him and what he stood for. And they will not forget that Mr Meacher was for a while one of the leading lieutenants of Tony Benn - and was strongly associated with the dotty Bennite analysis that Labour lost power to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 because it had been insufficiently left wing.

This is worth recalling because there can be little doubt that many of the people attending the Compass conference believe that Labour's best hope of retaining power lies in: 1) Mr Blair being replaced by Gordon Brown. 2) That transfer happening soon. 3) Mr Brown establishing a policy stance noticeably to the left of the one Mr Blair has taken his party to.

Implementation of those three wishes might well substantially lift the morale of a typical Labour activist. It might even result in a significant membership boost for Labour; some of those who left the party in the past nine years would be sure to return. But would it actually give Labour a better chance of winning a fourth consecutive term in office?

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The "Blair must go, and as quickly as possible" people assert, among other things, that there has been a complete breakdown of trust in the prime minister since he took Britain to war alongside the US in Iraq, and that consequently "good news" announcements about the public services aren't listened to.

This hypothesis overlooks the fact that the distrust factor was very evident 13 months ago and didn't stop Mr Blair winning a third election victory. The principal story in the NHS of late, moreover, has been a bad news one about financial deficits. And even if everything were brilliant in the Health Service, there would have been no stopping the avalanche of headlines about incompetence and chaos in the Home Office's stewardship of law, order and immigration issues.

For such reasons, and also because of the Cameron facelift for the Conservatives, this has undoubtedly been a bad year for the government and Mr Blair. A Tory victory at the next general election can be considered seriously for the first time in many a year, and the prime minister is widely perceived as a lame duck.

When is he going to retire and hand over to Mr Brown? Shouldn't he set a date for his departure at the next Labour conference? What is the point of his staying on?

Such questions are asked frequently and not just in Compass circles. The last one is especially difficult for his supporters to answer.

Much of his authority has gone, it seems generally agreed that Mr Brown will succeed him, and the chancellor can't wait for the change-over. Indeed, he has spent several years finding it hard to wait.

But is Mr Brown the right answer? It might seem so to Compass, but is it pointing in the right direction if the goal is to stay in power? The chancellor has a good economic record, albeit one that, with rising unemployment and with billions of extra spending failing to translate into improvements in key public services, is starting to look more than a little frayed. He is also an experienced, heavyweight politician, and when the public has come to put the words "Labour" and "sleaze" together, his old-fashioned Presbyterian values can be considered a distinct advantage.

It is nonetheless true that many people who gleefully greeted the New Labour dawn look to the arrival of prime minister Brown with as much enthusiasm as they could muster for a bowl of cold, lumpy porridge. When the big day comes, will grateful and zealous electors be putting out the bunting in key seats such as Yarmouth and Harlow? I don't think so.

A survey just published showed that almost a quarter of Labour supporters want the party to lose office so it can rethink what it stands for. Don't be surprised. Labour spent over three-quarters of the last century in opposition, and that was partly because many of its supporters find it a more comfortable place.

The party chose Mr Blair as its leader to end that. It put winning over principle. But maybe that was an aberration.