Labour: the fault lines’are growing

What was the purpose of Charles Clarke's New Statesman article? Will he challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership? CHRIS FISHER, political editor, spoke to him.

What was the purpose of Charles Clarke's New Statesman article? Will he challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership? CHRIS FISHER, political editor, spoke to him.


These are tense, difficult and dangerous times at the top of the Labour Party. The knives are coming out again as the leading players prepare for its annual conference that opens in Manchester on the 24th of this month. And by then today's stabbings might have turned into something approaching a political bloodbath.

The principal cause of this unhappy and unstable state of affairs is well-documented. The party's, and the nation's, leader is close to the end of his time in 10 Downing Street. Much of the hope and joy of 1997 has turned to ashes. Disillusionment and cynicism reign. Labour has been well behind the Tories in recent polls. And its leaders and members, including many of those who have been proud to regard themselves as Blairites, wait - and wait - for a further acknowledgment from him of the dying of the light.

Partly because of their memories of what happened to the Tories after Margaret Thatcher was driven from power, they do not want to stage a coup. They want Mr Blair to recognise the reality of his position and go. But what if, even now, he turns a blind eye and tries to play for more time?

Recent interventions by Blairite outrider, and former cabinet minister, Stephen Byers have suggested that the prime minister is still in denial. Supporters of Gordon Brown have started to retaliate, and among them is defence minister Tom Watson who attacked Mr Byers for “picking internal fights”. They also include former defence minister Don Touhig who has said that Mr Blair's refusal to set a retirement date is bleeding the party at its heart .

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Mr Touhig was sacked in a government reshuffle in May. So was former home secretary Charles Clarke, and his profound unhappiness with the current state of affairs in the government and his party was made crystal clear in an article published yesterday in the New Statesman magazine.

He argued that fault lines had opened between the government and many of the people who had supported it in 1997 and 2001. And in calling for a new form of leadership that is “clear and unambiguous and based on self-confidence”, he firmly criticised both Mr Blair and Mr Brown for the way they had recently announced important policy moves (in the prime minister's case on nuclear energy and in the chancellor's on the renewal of Britain s independent nuclear deterrent).

Mr Clarke began his article by taking party supporters back to the acrimonious 1981 Labour conference when Tony Benn came within a whisker of being elected deputy leader.

But he told me yesterday that he was not warning that things could get that unpleasant or self-defeating again. There was a level of vituperation then that just isn t around any more, he said.

He acknowledged that attention was likely to focus more on the article's criticism of Mr Brown than that of Mr Blair because the former is widely seen as a figure who will soon be taking over from the latter, and that his words will be seen in some quarters as a leadership bid that might stop the chancellor. But it was not intended that way, he said.

Emphasising that he had tried not to criticise either Mr Blair or Mr Brown more than the other, he continued: “I still expect that Gordon will be the leader, and that I will not be a candidate for the leadership. But I am not going to make a firm and binding declaration because we don't know the circumstances in which a leadership election will take place.”

His main purpose in penning the article was, he said, to get people to focus on “what Labour had to do in policy terms and other ways to persuade people to go on voting for it and allow a continuation of stable, social democratic government into the longer term.”

Further to this, he will be making a major speech in Westminster on Tuesday in which he will be giving his answers to the questions he posed in the New Statesman in identifying five fault lines. The first, he said, came from the process of trying to implement difficult reform. And having had responsibility for university top-up fees and ID cards, he speaks from experience.

He also stresses that divisions have opened between the government and 1) The business community over, for example, the burdens of regulation 2) Greens or those individuals and organisations who, rightly, put the environment and sustainability at the top of their concerns 3) People who feel that it not sufficiently committed to democratic reform, or who fear it is retreating from the protection of civil liberties 4) Those who object to the Iraq war and other aspects of foreign policy.

How can all of these people be kept happy at the same time? Wasn't the coalition of supporters for Blairism bound to crack eventually? Can it be put back together?

But how to concentrate on such matters when the “When s he going?” question about Mr Blair remains unanswered?

The Norwich South MP has told Mr Blair to his face that he should set a date of 2008. But the prime minister is of the view that if any date is set it makes it impossible to operate at all .

I suggested to Mr Clarke that without a date, the conjecture would just go on and on.

He replied that I was telling a self-evident truth.