Saturday 13 June 2009

My "Comment is Free" Article.

This is the Guardian Comment is Free I wrote yesterday, still running on its website today.

We need change now, Gordon

The Campaign Group had nothing to do with the coup attempt, but if Brown does not offer real change, I will back a challenge

About a month ago the weekly discussion meeting of the Campaign Group of MPs focused on the imminent electoral wipeout of Labour in the coming European and local council elections. We decided to write to Gordon Brown to seek a meeting with him to see whether any common ground could be found on the policy changes needed to win back support for the party. No response was received.

Over the following weeks we refused to be dragged into either the plotting to oust Brown or the positioning by others seeking to fill his shoes if he fell. Our line was straightforward – there's no point in changing the faces at the top if there is no change in political direction.

When I then learned that No 10 was briefing journalists that Campaign Group members were involved in the email plot calling for Brown to go, I wrote again to the prime minister requesting that his people desist from this covert briefing. I told him straight that allegations about our involvement in this backstage plotting were untrue and that whatever political differences we had with him they were always expressed openly and honestly. I got no reply.

Few realistically doubted that the prime minister would survive this half-hearted attempted putsch. Nevertheless at the parliamentary Labour party meeting on Monday a chastened Brown for the first time admitted to weaknesses and mistakes and assured Labour MPs that lessons had been learned and gave the strong impression that changes would follow with intensive discussions within the PLP and party, and that a raft of new policies would be announced.

Labour MPs have taken false comfort in the Tories not surging ahead in the percentage share of the vote, ignoring the role Ukip plays in siphoning off Tory votes in European elections that largely return to the Tories in general elections. They cling to the statistic that Cameron needs a 7% swing to win the next election, which has only been achieved twice in the last century, forgetting that they themselves were party to just such an achievement only 12 years ago.

On Wednesday the first of the policy announcements on constitutional reform produced typical Brown-like long-winded, turgid consultations and committees of inquiry, stretching well beyond the election and possibly into infinity.

If Labour is to stand any chance of surviving at the next election, real change has to be visibly under way and progress demonstrated at the latest by the autumn.

A consensus checklist of what constitutes real change is emerging from many sources. Securing jobs by intervening in manufacturing and restoring trade union rights; securing homes by a mass local authority house-building programme; stopping the squandering of public resources by ending the privatisation of public services; reasserting the government's green credentials with no third runway; for young people freezing, as the first step towards abolishing, student fees; for pensioners restoring the link between pensions and earnings; halting the attacks on welfare; paying for our programme by fair taxation and cutting out the waste on the likes of Trident renewal and ID cards; and making government ruthlessly clean, open and fair with immediate electoral reform.

Most of the policy changes are blindingly obvious and readily implementable to re-establish our credentials with each section of the broad coalition that enthusiastically ensured the rout of the Tories and Labour's election in 1997.

These all seem straightforward, sensible and popular. But what happens if Brown refuses to contemplate real change? If we go beyond November without real change visibly under way, what hope is left of Labour not only remaining in government but also surviving as an effective political force at all?

At that stage the only responsible act in the long-term interests of our movement would be to offer a real change in political direction by mounting a challenge to the political leadership of the party and letting the members of the party decide. Let me give notice now that this is the path I will take. If this route is blocked again by MPs failing to nominate, then the alternative is Labour MPs making it clear at the next election that they stand on a policy platform of real change as "change candidates".

Of course, they will be standing as Labour candidates but binding together as a slate of candidates committed within Labour to advocating a change programme, setting out the policy programme they will be advocating as a group and supporting in parliament if elected. Only in this way can we demonstrate to the supporters that want to come home to Labour that there is the hope and prospect of change.