One of the things I’ve missed blogging about, grumpily or otherwise, is the great Blair-Brown handover. Whatever your views about the last few weeks it is difficult to deny that it has been politics with a capital ‘P’. Blair, so much the dominant figure in British politics over the last 10 years or so, has gone. Although the great “search for the legacy” will seemingly linger on for a bit. You’d have thought the people of the middle east had enough problems.
Now Gordon “clunking fist” Brown is the new PM. What are we to make of him?
I ask that question because answering it will be a good way of rounding up a number of the themes of the last few weeks into one (rather long) blog post and also because, admittedly some time ago, Millenium kindly tagged me with the Gordon Brown “meme” that has been going around. As it is the first one of these things that this blog has had I think I really ought to respond, even if it is somewhat delayed. Also answering those four questions will help provide a structure for this post and provide a neat framework for my thoughts on the new Prime Minister and what he means for politics.
Two things he should be proud of:
So we start with looking back on Brown’s record to see what things can be put in the positive column;
1. First, only the most blindly politically partisan person could try to deny that Brown hasn’t at least done a reasonably good job running the economy and in doing so provided the resources needed to invest in public services. OK, you can argue over how much credit he can personally take for the economic situation Britain is in, whinge about how independence for the Bank of England was our idea, point out the many mistakes made, and question how the investment in public services has been carried out – but you can’t really deny that as Chancellor he has a record that he can take some pride in.
2. Brown has also been responsible for the emphasis that the Labour government has placed on tackling the issue of child poverty. While critics are right to point out that he has fallen short of his own targets on this and the contradictory effect that some of his policy decisions have had on tackling this problem, Brown can be proud of how he has pushed this issue up the political agenda. He can also be proud of those actions that the government have taken to improve the lives of children in poverty. Brown has played a key role in building momentum around this issue and I think I’ve seen examples of how the voluntary sector in particular have responded positively to this effort.
Actually Brown’s relationship with the voluntary sector is worthy of comment. I get the impression that Brown has been better at engaging with the voluntary sector than Blair has. One feature of the Brown government that will be interesting to watch will be how the relationship between the government and voluntary sector organisations develops.
In a more political sense Brown can take some pride in the fact that he is still here 10 years on, when so many other of the big Labour figures who came in in 97 have fallen by the wayside, and was able to ensure that he was in a position to seize the top job.
There seems to have been an awful lot of crap talked about heir apparent Brown during the declining years of the Blair era. Most of it coming from the right wing media feeding of the comments of his enemies within the Labour party. He is ‘psychologically flawed’, a ‘stalinist’, a strategic thinker unable to cope with more than one thing at once, detached from reality, a man with a personality totally unsuited to be Prime Minister and who will be a disaster at the job. A picture has been painted of him as some sort of brooding Scottish sociopath.
Oh yes, the Scottish thing. “The English won’t accept a Scottish Prime Minister” we are confidently told. Since when! Maybe I am naive but I don’t think the English are half as prejudiced against the Scots as the Daily Mail thinks, or at least hopes, they are.
Then there is the alternative version of Brown, the Guardian columnists fantasy Prime Minister. The Brown who will restore the Labour Party to its true self and banish the bad smell left behind by Tony.
Both versions of Brown are caricatures that tell us much more about the people that espouse them than Brown himself. You cannot question that Brown has a record of achievement and that didn’t happen by accident. He is an extraordinarily talented and capable politician with strong values, huge ambition, and a clear sense of what he wants to achieve. He is also someone who has been at the centre of, and vital to, the new Labour project. Brown is no left-winger. Good evidence for this can be found in comparisons of Brown’s relationship with the unions and big business (I noticed that George Monbiot had some good stuff to say on this on Tuesday).
The talk of Brown being a) not capable of doing the job and b) likely to take the Labour party more to the left has been from the start ridiculous. Which to me makes it all the more curious that Tories seem to have based their strategy to a large degree on these very contentions.
Two things he should apologise for:
But before you get the impression that this post is some sort of defence of Brown let me look at the case against. Brown been central to the New Labour project with all its success, failures and crimes. Therefore he is as much responsible for the war in Iraq, the attack on civil liberties etc. as is Blair. He, as has been said elsewhere, signed the cheques. So he should apologise for all the same things that every Labour minister, MP, and member should apologise for.
He also has a number of things to apologise for for which he bares the lion’s share of responsibility;
1. The first of these that I would point to would be something I would term the “Treasury Approach”. We all know that Brown as Chancellor has exerted an unprecedented influence over domestic policy during the Blair years. The manner by which he has exerted that influence and consequences that have stemmed from it are definitely something that needs apologising for. Characterised by centralised control, a fondness for over complexity in rules and systems, and Brown’s own particular brand of spin (most famously his “slight of hand” in his Budget speeches) has given us PFI, the contract negotiations for the London Tube, over the top inspections regimes, and the creeping marketisation of health and education.
More than is probably recognised, this approach has had a damaging effect on the morale and conduct of the public services, has contributed to the declining reputation of politics, and has got in the way of many of the reforms that the government itself was trying to carry out. The government has shown signs of recognising that it has come to appreciate at least some of the damage that this approach has created. Brown himself, if we are to believe the rhetoric of recent weeks, has also pledged to change. But needless to say he has not apologised.
2. Much of this “Treasury Approach” has originated in Brown’s need to build up the Treasury as an alternative power base in the great rivalry with Blair. This is the second thing I would argue that Brown needs to apologise for. The decade old battle between PM and Chancellor has had a corrosive effect not only on the Labour party, which I am not so concerned about, but also on the conduct of government itself. It has created an unhealthy, probably often juvenile, and at times possibly debilitating atmosphere in the conduct of national politics. The conduct of these two warring factions has prevented Britain from having the good governance that it deserves.
The curious two-headed beast that the Labour government has been over the last 10 years has been one of the key defining characteristics of British politics. In the media especially the Blair/Brown rivalry has often crowded out the more traditional government/opposition rivalry. We shouldn’t underestimate that degree of change that will come now that one of those heads has been lopped off. The critical question that all of us engaged in politics now needs to think about is what will the nature of that change be.
Two things he should do immediately on becoming Prime Minister & two things he should do while Prime Minister:
As a Lib Dem it is tempting to answer these two with obvious answers about withdrawing from Iraq, introducing PR, or something similar. But it is a somewhat vain hope that Brown will start implementing the Liberal Democrat General Election manifesto. Much more instructive is to look at this from Brown’s perspective – what is it that he needs to do to achieve the ambitions he has for himself and presumably the country?
What are the two key things that Brown should aim to achieve now he is PM? The first is to win the next General Election. The second is to, er, win the next General Election. Brown knows that he is in a somewhat equivocal position as someone who has become PM without leading his party to an election victory. He also will not want to go down in history as the guy that followed Tony and then botched it. Brown’s priority will be to win the next General Election. Every thing he does from now on, and I mean everything, should be seen in that context.
So the moves that Brown needed to make immediately on becoming Prime Minister needed to be the opening gambit in the Labour campaign towards the next election. The most obvious thing he needed to do was to create an impression of change, to provide a convincing case that this is a new start. So far I’ve been impressed with the astuteness of what he has done to create that impression.
While he doesn’t do the “showbiz” as well as Blair, there have been a number of clever little things that he has done, such carrying out the reshuffle in the House of Commons instead of Downing Street, that have been designed to create the right mood music. The reshuffle itself was very smart. This is a cabinet designed to take Labour to the election with people chosen to neutralise negatives and others chosen to look good advocating key campaign themes.
Plus the whole “big tent” thing has worked very well for him. I have very little doubt that the primary motive was one of spin. His offer of roles to Lib Dems has, frustratingly, out witted us. Although mistake were made, the majority of the criticism of Ming on this, promoted by a lot of bad journalism, has been unfair. Personally I did get quite angry about it, but on reflection I don’t think there was an easy way to play this one.
In short, in only a few days he has already laid the foundations for what he hopes will be a fourth Labour election victory. We have had a long period of hiatus while we waited for Tony to sod off. It has been remarkable how much, once he had finally gone, politics has already changed. The interesting thing to watch for now will be how all this effects Cameron and the Tories.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.