I worked with Ashok for part of my "Year In Industry" pre-university between 1993 and 1994 at British Steel. He wasn't an MP at that point; he had been elected in a by-election in '91, lost his seat in the general election of '92 and regained it in '97. All the same, I have a very favourable impression of him. As the local MP for where I work, I've long idly considered starting a weblog for him; surely hand-aggregating together the relevant bits of TheyWorkForYou and Google News wouldn't be too hard, but believe it when you see it. (I'd be inclined to call it "Dr. Kumar at 01642", but really his constituency is at least as much 01287 as it is 01642. It's annoying that there isn't a famous map of the UK divided into STD codes - that is, unless you know better.)
That said, it's very hard to get a copy of the article he wrote, to try and get his comments in their original context. (Ashok has later said that he never implied a timescale for his suggestion that Blair should make way for Brown. Fair enough.) In my view, the newspaper in which his column was written, the Northern Echo, has a web site which is (possibly deliberately?) extremely poor for keeping easily accessible archive records of important documents like this. Now I have been able to dig the entire article out of the Google cache, but in case that link ever stops working, I'm going to fair-use some of the earliest and latest paragraphs of the article as a historial record. If this hasn't done the rounds of the UK political blogs ten times already, share and enjoy.
Written by Dr. Ashok Kumar MP, copyright presumably owned by Newsquest Media Group.
New Labour - new leader?
THE recent 100th anniversary of the Parliamentary Labour Party left me with a great feeling of pride to be in a position to play a small part in building on the legacy of those pioneers who laid the foundations for the development of the party which has contributed so much to British society.
I consider it a huge honour to be a Labour Member of Parliament and part of a Labour Government at a time when the party enjoyed great electoral success. Even the Prime Minister's fiercest critics would be foolish to deny that under his leadership Labour has transformed its electoral fortunes on a scale which seemed impossible back in 1983.
Like Clement Attlee's great victory in 1945, which enabled his Government to shape post-war Britain, the 1997 General Election victory was a watershed in British Labour history.
The electoral success of the New Labour project is particularly clear in my own constituency of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. Bordering William Hague's North Yorkshire seat, my constituency is a typically "middle-England" seat which had a strong Tory majority in 1983. If it were not for the bold modernisation of the party which occurred between 1983 and 1997, I have no doubt that many of my strongest local supporters would vote Conservative.
Much of the credit for this must go to the formidable partnership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, two of the most able figures in the history of the Labour Party. Almost all the statistics in every area of policy explicitly show that there has been significant progress since Mr Blair became Prime Minister in 1997.
Despite public perception to the contrary, the percentage of GDP spent on the NHS has risen substantially and will continue to rise under Mr Brown's three-year spending plan from 2005. Waiting lists for operations have dropped considerably, cancer and heart treatment rates are improved and there have been big increases in the number of doctors and nurses employed by the NHS.
The same is true when we look at social justice issues, with tax credits helping those on the lowest wages and the New Deal helping over one million people back into work. Today, with record levels of employment, the Government, under the combined policies of Blair and Brown, has pulled 700,000 children out of relative poverty and cut absolute pensioner poverty by two thirds.
And remember - all of this has been achieved on the back of economic stability rather than through higher taxes.
So, despite all this undeniable success, why does the Government's popularity seem to be waning?
Obviously, Iraq has taken its toll. The key issue of concern I am confronted with when I meet voters is the issue of trust. There has been a general decline - not due to, but certainly enhanced by, the Iraq war - in the trust the public have in politicians and particularly - and unfairly I feel - in the Prime Minister himself.
This has not been helped by the recent allegations of improper conduct over finances and peerages.
There has also been the long-running criticism of New Labour that it has become too obsessed with spin and media manipulation. This will seem ironic for activists - like myself - who were campaigning in the early 1980s when the party was ill-equipped to match Margaret Thatcher's slick media machine and as a result was portrayed as outdated.
However, if it is true that one of the foundations upon which New Labour was built - effective and efficient media communications - has become one of its weaknesses then it is a small price to pay for the electoral success we have enjoyed.
The Conservatives were an ineffective Opposition, but finally, seem to have realised the obvious: that appealing to middle-England is key to winning a general election. Credit must go to David Cameron, who has, if nothing else, improved their image and in turn transformed their fortunes in the short term. However, this new-found popularity is already on the wane and we must be in a position to take advantage.
It is for this reason that now, more than ever, New Labour needs to be renewed to meet this new challenge. While his true ideological stance still remains elusive, at a superficial level Mr Cameron is the epitome of modern Conservatism in the same way that Mr Blair was of New Labour in 1997.
There is also a growing sense - much to my horror - that it is no longer unfashionable to be a Tory.
Until recently, I could sense a growing anxiety among Labour MPs who feared that Labour's complacency and preoccupation with issues of leadership could result in a change in fortunes for the Conservatives. However, to his credit, the Prime Minister seems to have realised that, in order to launch an effective assault on the invigorated Opposition, it is essential that the Chancellor is fully on board and they present a united front.
We must be prepared to unite and battle with a new sense of purpose to prevent the unthinkable: the Tories being portrayed as fresh and new, compared to a Labour Party seen as ideologically spent.
So we need to re-engage the electorate and with Britain as a whole. It has always been the case that - even in times of relative ideological consensus - parties must subject themselves to constant renewal in order to remain electable. In 1997, Tony Blair, with all his qualities as a politician, was the ideal man to lead the Party, to personify New Labour and make it electable.
In 2006, Gordon Brown, with his innovation for policy and his drive to spread social justice, is the man to renew the party and lead it into the next Parliament.
As Chancellor, Mr Brown has presided over an era of prolonged prosperity and is responsible for significantly directing wealth to the poorest and least fortunate members of society without resorting to the "tax and spend" accusations which blighted Labour in the 1970s.
In short, Mr Brown's policies as Chancellor were geared towards making socialism credible and a great deal of progress has been made towards that end.
A Brown Government would focus on deepening the real improvements brought forward by New Labour. He is a man driven by the pursuit of social justice and this would be central to his premiership. This would be built on a foundation of maintaining the economic conditions which have, under this Government, brought about high levels of employment and extra investment in public services.
I would also want to see a continuation and extension of the commitment to science and industry which he has demonstrated consistently. He has also recently reiterated his commitment to constitutional reform which would be welcome to most Labour MPs.
I want to see this go further. Past Labour governments all had crucial key messages. The Attlee Government based its ethos on planning and the use of the state as an agency to secure social justice. The Wilson Government saw the harnessing of science as the core element in building a modern economy. The Blair Government was elected on a policy of modernisation of both party and state and of showing that Labour could deliver social justice without jeopardising economic stability.
A Brown Government should embody and build on these values. It should strive for greater social equality, and use the state to help achieve this. It should modernise the economy through enhancing innovation and science - a policy foreshadowed by his research and development tax credit programme - and it should develop a deeper socialist internationalism based on the Africa Commission.
But of the many qualities the Chancellor possesses, his love for the Labour Party is the one which endears him most to his colleagues. Steeped in Labour history and deeply rooted in the party's tradition, Brown has consistently put aside his own personal ambitions for something which he considers far greater than himself. This loyalty should not go unrecognised.
In order to rise to the challenge of a renewed Conservative Party it is crucial that New Labour is invigorated with new policy innovation and a renewed sense of purpose before the next election.
Mr Blair's successor will be faced with the challenge to re-establish a modern sense of Britishness and find new ways to engage an apathetic and untrusting electorate.
Gordon Brown recently displayed, in what could be his last Budget, his innovation for policy and his sense of fairness and decency. I have no doubt that he is the ideal man to meet the challenges of reinvigorating the party and re-engaging those who supported Labour so enthusiastically in 1997.
If Mr Blair is concerned with securing a lasting and memorable legacy for Britain then I can think of no better way than to allow a smooth and rapid succession for Mr Brown.