Matthew Parris – one of my favourite political commentators, and certainly my favourite Conservative commentator – has written a great column about the likely mindset of Labour backbenchers as their party faces “shipwreck” at the next election.
He draws on his own experience as an MP in the 1980s to argue that “the most pressing thing on the minds of most Labour MPs this weekend is their own majority at the next election, not their party’s” – and hence that most would rather cling on to another two years in the Commons than risk an early election by dumping Brown, even if the early election produced a less catastrophic result for Labour than appears inevitable by 2010. As Parris writes:
Dr Johnson is wrong. The prospect of being hanged in two weeks does not concentrate the mind. It numbs. Paralysed like a rabbit before a snake by that ticking “time still to go” clock in the corner of the screen, your brain is drained of deeper thoughts.
And so it will be this morning for hundreds of Labour MPs. Few will have much confidence that, after the spring of 2010, there will be any kind of employment that would pay better than the £90,000 or so to which a backbencher’s salary effectively amounts, including expenses. 2010 is the wall, the void.
Indeed, these are the thoughts which Brown’s dwindling band of loyalists will be pressing on doubtful MPs: “It’s still only 2008. With Gordon, you’re totally secure until 2010. Who knows what may turn up in the interim?”
However, Parris argues that Labour’s predicament has now developed into a national “emergency”, as Britain heads into recession with a “doomed and flailing leadership at the helm”. Moreover, the long-term survival of the Labour party, and the integrity and reputation of centre-left politics in UK, depend on action being taken now rather than after Cameron has won his landslide:
The Parliamentary Labour Party, the party nationwide and the trade union movement, should be asking themselves how the 20 months ahead are going to look to an emerging generation and to history.
How would paralysis reflect on a political movement with claims to a future in the new century? How proud they are going to feel about the way they handled the recognition that, at a dangerous time at home and abroad, their party had landed itself with the most inept and directionless Prime Minister in British history; and with nearly two years left to go.
As Parris continues:
This is about more than electoral arithmetic. It’s about showing that a party has a heart, a mind and stomach for a fight; that it can stir itself in an emergency.
As for the wider left, beyond the confines of the Labour movement itself, a similar paralysis has taken hold:
[W]here are the voices raised from the Left, prepared to acknowledge this spasm, and distinguish between the failure of an individual, and the failure of an ideology? Is Polly Toynbee almost on her own? Has the whole centre left project lost its self-belief, taking refuge only in days, hours and minutes left profitlessly in office?
As Parris concludes, what Labour needs is to think about its future in opposition, and the need it will then face for:
a leader then who can hold his head up and say that he didn’t hold back, waiting for someone else to show some guts.