“Always leave them wanting more.”
It’s not entirely clear who said it first, but this has become one of the more popular, if rarely achieved, political clichés.
Of all the recent political leaders we might have expected to stand aside with a clamour for more ringing in his ears, Gordon Brown would not have featured prominently in discussions. Brown’s Labour leadership culminated in the party’s second worst General Election performance in the post-war era. Although he opted to remain in the Commons to serve out his term, Brown appearances in the chamber became as rare as Scottish appearances at the World Cup.
On those infrequent occasions when the former PM did appear in the House – usually on a highly constituency-specific matter – he was typically jeered and heckled from the benches opposite and surrounded by only a rather small band of loyal supporters on his own side. Whatever one’s views of the man and his career, it hardly seemed a fitting final chapter for someone who loomed quite so large on the UK political stage for almost twenty years.
And so, the redemption he achieved in the final days of the Scottish referendum campaign was welcomed even by many of his fiercest political opponents. His continued presence in the debate on further devolution after the referendum led many to believe that his comeback may not have been a one-time-only deal. And when Johann Lamont stood down from the Scottish Labour leadership in a blaze of acrimony, more than a few leading figures in the Scottish and UK Labour parties were desperate to see the Lazarus of Kirkcaldy complete his political revival by taking on Nicola Sturgeon in 2016.
Their hopes were dashed. But Brown had achieved what many would have deemed unimaginable just a few months earlier. He left them wanting more.
Sources close to Brown suggest he will announce his retirement as an MP in the coming days. But the former Prime Minister is not the only Labour big beast departing the stage in 2015, though he is certainly the biggest of the lot.
Along with Brown, three other former Labour occupants of Great Offices of State will depart the Commons for the final time next year – Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and David Blunkett. Add to them a host of other former Cabinet members – Tessa Jowell, Peter Hain, Frank Dobson, John Denham, Shaun Woodward, Bob Ainsworth and Hazel Blears – and you have a combined 74 years of experience at the highest level of government leaving the Labour benches. These people have retained varying degrees of involvement and influence in Parliament, but it cannot be anything other than a loss to both the Commons and the Labour Party to lose so much experience in one fell swoop.
Indeed, it is a striking feature of those who served in the New Labour Cabinets from 1997 to 2010, just how few of them have actually stuck around into the new era. Tony Blair himself departed the Commons for good the same day he left Number 10. But consider how many more of his most senior Ministers have also exited the fray for one reason or another – Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn, Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon, Stephen Byers, Ruth Kelly, James Purnell, David Miliband, John Reid, Charles Clarke, Ruth Kelly, John Prescott – have either gone to the Lords or left Parliament altogether, not to mention those who have sadly passed away such as Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam.
Only a handful who currently serve in Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet – Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, Hilary Benn, Andy Burnham, Douglas Alexander and Yvette Cooper – served in Blair or Brown Cabinets. And an even smaller handful still – Alan Johnson and Margaret Beckett among them – will still sit on the backbenches after May 2015.
This is an astonishingly quick turnaround for a party that left office just four and a half years ago.
As they head into the 2015 General Election and seek to assemble the wider team that will sell their message to the electorate, Labour will find they have a surprisingly small pool of well-known faces to field. They will need to try to portray this as a strength – showcasing the new, fresh-faced top team that is untainted by some of the less popular aspects of the New Labour legacy. A number of the new generation have already shown real potential – Chuka Umunna, Gloria De Piero, Rachel Reeves, Stella Creasy and Lucy Powell spring to mind. They will all have major roles to play between now and May.
But the impending departure of Gordon Brown from the Parliamentary stage serves as a stark reminder of the amount of talent and experience that is moving on.
The 2015 intake will have to go a long way to match them. Many of their predecessors have left us wanting more.
This blog was originally published on Labour List on 25 November 2014.