Gerald Kaufman, writing in The Guardian, gives a flavour of Labour's current debates: "I am a strong supporter of Brown as Blair's successor - or at any rate was, until I was forced to reconsider my allegiance by Lord Hattersley's recent promise to shoot himself if John Reid becomes Labour leader." (Those who have read Hattersley's very witty memoir Who Goes Home? will recall how much its author regarded and relied on Kaufman during the 1974-79 Labour Government.) Kaufman's conclusion seems to me clearly right and equally clearly dispiriting in that it needs to be said:
Those who are clear-sighted will see that Blair, with all his shortcomings and problems, has laid the foundations for [Labour's] success. I read that catcalls and jeers await the leader's address by Blair at the Manchester party conference later this month. If the delegates had any sense of history - or just any sense - they would go down on their knees in thanksgiving for his achievements and the chance for the future he has provided.
The contingent scenario Kaufman sketches in the last sentence is, of course, unlikely. It's worth reflecting on the reasons.
Kaufman was an able minister in the last Labour Government, but never won high office owing to his misfortune of becoming a senior front-bencher only during Labour's extended silliness in the 1980s. In that time, many sensible people on the Left either despaired of Labour's prospects and withheld active support, or left the party to join the Social Democrats. While then a Labour activist on the social democratic wing of the party, I never joined or supported the SDP, as it seemed to me inevitable that moderate left-of-centre politics could be electorally successful only through the Labour Party, however remote that prospect appeared at the time. My position was that, while I could see no good reason for anyone to join or support the Labour Party, I might as well stay in it as I was already there. The only reason I could bring myself to vote (as I did) in the 1983 and 1987 general elections for a party promising to abandon nuclear defence, entrench trade union immunities from the rule of law, and pursue a seriously inflationary economic programme, was that I knew there was zero chance of Labour's being elected on this programme. I don't claim in retrospect that this was necessarily reputable or correct reasoning, but it was my reasoning at the time.
But the SDP - whom I do not criticise for departing the Labour cause, and whose contribution to Labour's serial defeats till 1992 was essential for Labour's success from 1994 - made one essential point that is hard to get round. Whatever the achievements of Labour under Tony Blair, the Labour Party can never cease being the Labour Party. Its most enduring historical characteristic is to reserve admiration and love for its principal vote-losers, such as George Lansbury, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. It can never forgive leaders who are effective - consider the unpopularity of Hugh Gaitskell, whom not even Tony Blair cites as a political influence, and the fury with which party members regarded and still recall the essential cuts in public spending implemented by Denis Healey when Chancellor under Jim Callaghan. That will be Blair's fate too.
It will also be Gordon Brown's, assuming there is policy continuity between leaders. I expect there will be, which makes Labour's feuding all the more incomprehensible. In his Times column today, Anatole Kaletsky argues:
Mr Brown’s most important decision when he takes over as Prime Minister will be over foreign policy: to continue with the Blair policy, or to withdraw from Iraq and publicly break with President Bush. If Mr Brown has any sense he will do the latter, not only because US foreign policies have proved so disastrous, but also because a clean break with President Bush will symbolise the end of the Blair era, will allow the Labour Party to return to its internationalist traditions and will reconnect the Government with both middle-class and left-wing voters.
I disagree strongly with this judgement of Blair's foreign policies, but I suspect it also misreads Brown's intentions. None of us - probably not even Brown's closest allies - can predict with any confidence the likely tilt of his premiership on foreign policy, but the indications are that he is an instinctive Atlanticist. He feels at home with the personalities and politics symbolised by Democrats such as Richard Holbrooke, who would probably have been Secretary of State (and a very good one) had John Kerry become President. Brown's support for renewing the British independent nuclear deterrent is welcome, and also notable in that he didn't need to say it. Whether he prove an effective Prime Minister or merely a coda in a long period of single-party dominance is another question. I suspect he will be a historically insignificant premier, comparable to the Canadian Liberal Paul Martin, another long-serving finance minister who waited years to assume the leadership he coveted. Labour's current warring makes that downbeat scenario all the more likely.