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Labour Party: destroying itself with ‘H-Bombs’

The so-called Hewitt-Hoon ‘coup’ merely confirmed that the less public purpose Labour has, the more internally corrosive it becomes.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘A brilliantly executed stratagem… A triumph… A sudden appropriation of leadership or power.’

Those are some of the dictionary definitions of the word ‘coup’, which should make clear that whatever Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon imagined they were doing when they sent out a letter calling for a secret ballot amongst Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) members on whether Gordon Brown should remain as party leader, they were not launching a coup.

A coup requires guts, political decisiveness, and a desire to take the reins of leadership in the name of some interest or purpose. And those values are utterly absent in late New Labour. The ruling party of Britain is so divided and discombobulated that it is even incapable of suffering a proper coup. It is not only clueless; it is coup-less.

It is perhaps not surprising in our era of personality politics that the politics-watching world is desperate for any sign of history or upheaval. And so it was that the media leapt like lunatics on Hewitt and Hoon’s letter, fancifully describing it as ‘an unsuccessful coup’, ‘a silly coup’, and even a ‘H-Bomb’ (because, er, both the instigators have names beginning with the letter H). When Brown survived the ‘coup’, there were headlines telling us he had ‘battled against his opponents’ and ‘won out’, successfully ‘staying in power’ (1).

If you had just arrived in modern Britain in a time machine from another era, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was a political war for the soul of New Labour and for the hearts and minds of New Britain. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hewitt and Hoon did not launch anything like a bid for power, and Brown has not successfully ‘stayed in power’ in any meaningful way. Rather the ‘H-Bomb’ has shone a brilliant flash of light on the absence of political substance and direction in the Labour Party, and on its now almost-complete transformation into a collection of personalities drowning in a swamp of post-political sludge.

Hewitt and Hoon did not really expect their letter to change the world. The two former Cabinet ministers sent their letter on Wednesday last week, calling, effectively, for the PLP to organise a vote of no-confidence in Brown. The most striking thing about their letter is its suggestion that PLP members should be allowed to ‘express their view’ on the ‘question of the leadership’ in a secret ballot (2). Not only does this speak volumes about the plotters’ disregard for open, democratic debate in this year of a General Election – it also reveals the complete absence of principle in Labour’s interminable inner-party spats.

A coup, even one organised in secret by a political or military minority, tends eventually to reveal itself: it says whom it is representing, and what it hopes to achieve. Even Caesar got to know, at the very last minute, the identities of his usurpers: And you, Brutus? What Hewitt and Hoon were proposing, by contrast, was an anonymous, unspoken, secretive removal from power of a party leader they have lost faith in. If their ‘H-Bomb’ had been successful, it would have involved the ousting of Brown by an effectively unnamed force (anonymous PLP voters) and by unspoken grievances (let’s not air our complaints, Hewitt and Hoon said, but rather sort them out in a secret vote).

This reveals much about what is driving the various spats in the Labour Party: not political differences, but the absence of politics; not a debate about policy, principles and organisation, but the death of debate; not a war of words over what Labour is for, but simply backroom bickering between individuals – literally in this case, where the major question of leadership would have been decided secretly, in a backroom. This was no attempted coup by one political force against another, but rather was a momentary locking of horns amongst groups of people with not an idea or a plan between them.

The ‘H-Bomb’ is better understood as the latest episode in the long drawn out indecision of the modern Labour Party. If we must use the c-word, then the Hewitt-Hoon debacle was part of a very slow-burning internal ‘coup’, in which Labour’s lack of ideas and loss of meaningful connection with the public is increasingly internalised as party incoherence and leader-baiting.

In the absence of any visionary policy and old-style grassroots support, and with the death of ‘Old Labour’, ‘New Labour’, ‘Red Labour’ and all the rest, the Labour Party is increasingly turning on itself, and especially on its leader, with many scapegoating Brown as the single and ultimate cause of what is actually the party’s drawn out, historic, irreversible demise. Unable to resuscitate the party through engagement with the external world of politics and people, the PLP, the Cabinet and other sections of Labour are instead further destroying the party through internal fingerpointing, ministerial churn and attacks on the leader without serious proposals for an alternative leader. The less public purpose and momentum Labour has, the more internally corrosive it becomes.

Indeed, the ‘H-Bomb’ is only the latest salvo in a bigger ‘Continuous Coup’, which also includes David Miliband’s ridiculous banana-wielding leadership move at the 2008 party conference and the James Purnell/Hazel Blears/Caroline Flint resignations during the local elections in June last year (the politics-free childishness of which was summed up by Blears’ brooch, which said: ‘Rocking the boat’). What is striking is that with each development in the ‘Continuous Coup’, the plotters have increasingly given up even on the pretence of hiding behind policy differences and have allowed the true court-style personality clashes to come to the fore. As one apparently rebellious MP has said: ‘We’ve got the policies right – it’s just the leader that’s wrong.’ (3) In short, and in keeping with Hewitt and Hoon’s call for a secret ballot: let’s not discuss anything so tricky as policies; let’s just shift personalities around and hope for the best. With their letter, Hoon and Hewitt were simply trying to stir up the broth of confusion in the hope that something would change for the better. (Indeed, if you search for ‘Hoon Hewitt coup’ on Google, it asks ‘Did you mean: Hoon Hewitt soup?’ Yes, thanks Google, I did mean that.)

Yet if it is fanciful to describe the ‘H-Bomb’ as a political coup, it is equally fanciful to say that Brown ‘survived’ the attack. Brown remains leader of the Labour Party, and by extension prime minister of Britain, by default, courtesy of the weakness of the opposition rather than by dint of his own political determination or moral authority. If the local elections last year revealed that there is no public support for Brown, then the H-Bomb revealed that there is no real party support for him either. Some of his Cabinet ministers took hours to defend him following the Hewitt-Hoon letter (and even then they defended him quarter-heartedly), while the PLP members crying ‘shame’ at Hewitt and Hoon are not doing so because they love Brown but because they fear for their own jobs and their own standing, worried that if there was anything like a big debate or leadership contest they would be exposed to a hostile public.

Brown himself justifies his leadership role not in terms of political vision or moral authority, but by playing the instability card: a leadership contest would be bad for Labour and bad for Britain, he says, potentially unleashing ‘chaos’ (4). In short, he stays not in order to lead, but in order to prevent what he envisions as political and social breakdown. Coronation Street’s Bet Lynch once said: ‘This isn’t a smile, it’s the lid on a scream.’ And Gordon Brown isn’t a leader – he’s the lid on a boiling pot of Labour incoherence and confusion.

Is this really how we want to go into a General Election? With ‘leaders’ who consider open debate as a form of chaos and ‘rebels’ who prefer to plot in private rather than enthuse the public, and where neither side has an inspiring idea between them? It is time, urgently, to shake things up.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill saw in the leaked Mandelson-Draper emails the psycho politics of the collapsing elite. Mick Hume reckoned that last year’s Libyan debacle sunk New Labour to new depths of absurdity. He also looked at New Labour’s lingering death, and felt that the party’s political crisis went far deeper than Gordon Brown. Elsewhere, Tim Black criticised New Labour’s pseudo ‘class war’ and Rob Lyons criticised Labour’s decision to bash bankers at their 2009 party conference. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.

(1) Brown battles coup by former ministers, Australian, 7 January 2010

(2) In full: Text of Brown letter, BBC News, 6 January 2010

(3) Rebels without a cause, Comment Is Free, 6 January 2010

(4) See The hangdog dictator in Downing Street, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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