Of the big names from Gordon Brown’s government, it is perhaps two of the men who walked out of the spotlight who have seen their reputation and stature grow since. This summer it has been veterans Alan Johnson and Alistair Darling whose names were buzzing round Labour circles. Will they return to frontline politics and can they help Labour win?
How did this happen? After all, both were leading figures in New Labour’s miserable late decline. Neither stood for the leadership afterwards, leaving it to a younger generation to rescue the party. Neither seemed particularly interested in the rigours of opposition life. Darling rejected a shadow ministerial post, while Johnson was clearly uncomfortable as shadow chancellor. The best that was said about Johnson’s brief stint in the job was that he was deliberately muted, a long-term play for credibility against the short-term benefit of attack. A more regular charge was that his heart was not in it. When they were both absent, their absence was barely felt.
Four years later, the cry is out – send for the unlikely lads. This dramatic change says a lot about politics, about the mood of the Labour party, and about the two men themselves.
The first reason for their enhanced reputations is that both have been doing something different, and doing it very well. The Ondaatje and Orwell prizes Johnson won for This Boy showed the range of his intellect and the extent of his empathy. The former home secretary reminded people, including many younger Labour members of parliament, who only really knew him as a successful politician, that he was something more than a ‘big beast’.
Similarly, Darling’s careful shepherding of the ‘No’ campaign has won him plaudits. He has had his share of sniping to deal with, notably from his old boss, but while a campaign of such import could easily have become simply an emotional issue of identity, he instead established a calm focus on the facts that gave him the authority to do what many thought impossible – beat Alex Salmond head to head in the first televised debate.
Darling did this not through dividing lines or slogans, but through a lawyerly, detail-rich, consistent focus on a key issue, explaining carefully why it mattered, and not being thrown from his course by noises off or friendly fire.
That campaign is not over. Much could change. Rightly, with that job still to do, the calls for Darling’s return are more muted than for Johnson. But in that television debate, only one person spoke who you would trust to run a nation, and it was not Salmond. If Scotland stays, can Labour afford to waste such quality?
So in their non-Westminster activity, Johnson and Darling have reminded Labour people of their talents. More than that, their successes are symbolic of two qualities often missing from politics – authenticity and long-term perspective.
Johnson and Darling are who they are. Neither seems entirely comfortable with the reductionism of sloganeering, or party attacks. They would rather wait until they have something meaningful to say than rattling out a comment every moment. In our hyperactive, helter-skelter politics this can be seen as a weakness. Johnson is ‘lazy’ we are told, while Darling is ‘boring’.
In building up the reputation of politics as a whole, however, the authenticity and patience such qualities represent can be a huge advantage. These are people you feel you can trust. In a miserable time for the opinion of politics, that is incredibly valuable.
Yet, even with reputations enhanced, why do we find an array of voices singing their praises now? A large part of this is Labour’s odd relationship with our record. The party is both proud of the past, and desperate to show we have changed. As a result, the young and energetic have prospered and we have rebranded and redefined ourselves. We have moved on, we tell each other. Yet, oddly, it is Darling and Johnson who have really moved on.
In absenting themselves from the angry cockpit of frontbench politics, their qualities became clearer. Many of those qualities are reminders of why Labour was successful for so long: a connection with the priorities of voters, not our own obsessions; a focus on long-term strategy over immediate tactics; an intense practicality; and perspective about what really matters.
Will they come back? It is hard to see an easy place for either. Yet, without them, Labour seems less than it might be. Ultimately, the question comes down to the final reason their names keep being mentioned. The party is not yet fully confident of victory, so there is pressure to find ways to be more attractive to voters, to win those last dozen that could make all the difference.
The leadership is settled, the policies agreed, the argument clear. So what else can we improve? Well, could we not do with a bit more talent around the top table?
Another figure with an enhanced reputation is Andy Burnham. He has won his status in almost the exact opposite way to Johnson and Darling: by being the politician on Labour’s side with the highest tempo.
By promising to repeal Tory health reforms and to steer the NHS away from markets and towards localism, he has a clear, radical message which he has energetically projected. Those ambitions can cause problems for colleagues, as the ambush over his support for an estates levy to fund social care demonstrated. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband were forced to publicly overrule the shadow health secretary, while Burnham said little.
That fight is settled. But do not be fooled. The real battle over how, and whether, Labour will be able to fund the integration of health and social care is still to come. It will not be fought publicly, but it may well be the most important challenge the next Labour government faces.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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