• The End of New Labour?

    The local election results, and the subsequent opinion polls, suggest that the game is up – not just for Gordon Brown, but for the Labour government. It seems unlikely now that recovery is possible. If anything like the local election result is repeated in a general election, Labour could be out of power for a decade or more.

    This may, in other words, be one of those watershed moments in British politics when an apparently well-entrenched political hegemony is suddenly seen to be vulnerable and is about to be replaced by another. In my own political lifetime, I can recall several such moments, when the commentators’ solemn pronouncements that the status quo was unlikely to change were suddenly falsified by an overwhelming swing in political fortunes.

    It may not be premature, therefore, to begin thinking about an obituary for Blair/Brown and their New Labour government; for, make no mistake, Labour has not only won as New Labour and governed as New Labour – it will have lost as New Labour too.

    It is of course true that no government goes on forever. The cumulative disappointments that inevitably attend the exercise of power mean that any government’s survival for three terms is a signal achievement. In judging New Labour, we should not, therefore, be too harsh about the fact that they may now face defeat.

    The obituary writer might however linger longer over New Labour’s legacy. The body politic is, after all, like a tree trunk. A dendro-chronologist is able to derive a huge amount of information from a cross-section of the trunk; each ring is a detailed record of climatic conditions, natural disasters, liability to disease, and so on.

    Similarly, the political scientist or historian can see in the development of a given society the imprint and permanent record of each particular political era. British society today still lives with the legacies of the great Labour post-war government, the trauma of Suez and the “never had it so good” prosperity of the Macmillan era, the confusions and struggles – at home and in Europe – of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, and the harsh – some would say bracing – certainties of Thatcher.

    What, then, when the dust has cleared and a sober assessment is possible, will the tree rings show about New Labour? What mark will they have left on British society? If, as New Labour enthusiasts proclaim, the new doctrine was a break with the past and a new beginning, surely what remains will be of considerable significance? And – given the unparalleled opportunities offered by huge parliamentary majorities, a virtually defunct opposition, a charismatic and gifted proselytiser as leader – the government’s programme of reform will have left a particularly lasting legacy?

    Sadly, where the tree ring marks the point where the New Labour era ended and another has begun, it is likely that its outline will be blurred and in places non-existent. The “break with the past” will hardly be visible. There will be a broad continuity between what went before and what came after; the New Labour interlude will stand out hardly at all.

    There will be clearer marks at places – the Northern Ireland peace process to set alongside and offset the Iraq war for example – but the broad themes will show little change. The tolerance – even encouragement – of inequality, the blind faith in market provision, the exaggerated respect paid to the rich and powerful, the abandonment of the weak and powerless, the impatience with public service and the public sector and organised labour, the reliance on spin rather substance, the belief that the purpose of government is to keep power rather than use it, all represent themes that have changed little in what may well be seen by future commentators as merely an interregnum between Thatcher and Cameron.

    It is a sad reflection of this ethos that one suspects that there may be many in New Labour whose main response to Gordon Brown’s travails will be one of schadenfreude. Some will say that if only Tony Blair had remained at the helm, everything would have been different. But, like Mrs Thatcher before him, Tony’s supporters will conveniently forget that he was forced out because he had lost the confidence of his party and the country.

    Gordon has had to reap what Tony had sown. I was one of those who hoped and believed that Gordon could save the Labour government, that an injection of more recognisable Labour values might restore some faith in a doomed enterprise. But Gordon has been simply overwhelmed by the torrent of disappointments and resentments of erstwhile Labour supporters. His personal qualities or lack of them have become the lightning rod for all those who wanted change but did not get it.

    There is a certain rough justice in this. The New Labour project proved itself to be adept at winning elections – at least for a time. Where it has failed, as readers of the tree rings will one day confirm, is in using government’s power to bring about the change that was needed and that they promised. Instead, they wasted their opportunity and delivered more of the same. All of those who framed the New Labour project are implicated in that failure.

    Bryan Gould

    This article was published in The Guardian (online) on 12 May 2008
    12 May 2008

  • What Should Gordon Brown Do Now?

    What Should Gordon Brown Do Now?

    Bryan Gould Writes The PM’s Next Speech

    “The local election results and the opinion polls convey a pointed message _ that my government and I have for the time being lost the confidence of our supporters. We cannot deny the reality that the next election may be a step too far for a government completing its third term.

    To accept this is oddly liberating. It means that, instead of focusing exclusively on trying to win an election, I can now concentrate on delivering _ for the two years that remain of this term _ the best government this country can have. History may judge that I failed as an election-winner; my term as Prime Minister might yet deliver the verdict that I did the job well.

    To achieve this, I must first clear away the baggage that I inherited. I will, for example, lance the boil of the Iraq invasion by setting up an independent commission to establish how and why that came about. This will signal a return to the ethical foreign policy advocated by Robin Cook; we will, for example, finance the return to their homeland of those displaced when the US military base on Diego Garcia was established.

    I will cut by half the number of media advisers employed by the government, with the intention of showing that our message is about real issues, rather than spin. And I have learnt and will apply the lesson that a government that ignores its supporters for the sake of pleasing its opponents will end up being disliked by everyone.

    I will ensure that my government maintains unity and cohesion by taking careful account of what my MPs and those who elected them are telling me. I will recognise in advance those issues – such as the removal of the 10p tax band or the 42-day detention period – where a broad consensus looks impossible to achieve. Where there is a consensus, my colleagues will be expected to abide by it.

    I will review those policies – even the sacred cows – that have failed to deliver. I am not convinced, for example, that academy schools have succeeded or that we have even applied the right criteria for evaluating them.

    Because I believe that my government should be accountable for its own economic policy, I will reconsider whether it is right to contract that policy out to an “independent” central bank, and re-evaluate the advantages of restoring the main elements of economic policy to the arena of public debate and democratic process. My goal is a sustainable economy that delivers better standards of living, employment and public services to ordinary people, rather than inflated bonuses to those who create no new wealth but manipulate existing assets to their own advantage.

    I will return to my basic political instincts – those that brought me into Labour politics in the first place. I regard as unacceptable the rapid growth in inequality in this country. We cannot expect people to take pride in their country and to work hard for its success if they do not share in the benefits that success will bring.

    While I believe that a properly functioning market is irreplaceable, I do not accept that the market is infallible. It must be regulated and supplemented if it is to deliver acceptable outcomes to everyone. There is, in other words, an important role for public services in a modern economy. My government will give them priority over the next two years.

    The next election is in the lap of the gods – or, more prosaically, in the hands of the voters, as it should be. Between now and then, you will see less, not more, of me on your television screens. I will be concentrating instead on leading a competent, caring and effective government.”

    This piece was published in the online New Statesman on 18 April 2008

  • A Brown Study

    The following article by Bryan Gould appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 21 September

    The first two months must have been very heaven. The long-awaited prize had been grasped. Opposition from both within and without had faded away. A long period at Number Ten seemed assured.
    The voters seemed to like the new leader. They liked his plain-speaking and the absence of spin. They liked his re-statement of basic values and his robust defence of the national interest. Most of all, they liked the fact that he was not Tony Blair.
    So, one month later, how have we arrived at the 7% Conservative lead in today’s poll? Is Gordon Brown on track to join the ranks of those Prime Ministers who were never granted an electoral mandate because they fell at the first electoral hurdle?
    The first and partial answer is that it may be premature to ask these questions. The “Brown bounce” was always going to be short-lived. There was always going to be an audible thud as the polls came back to earth. What matters now is what will happen over the next eighteen months, and the current volatility of the polls (something to which David Cameron is himself no stranger) tells us little that we need to know.
    None of this means that Gordon has not compounded his problems by making avoidable errors. He has lacked a sure touch in presenting policy and in Parliament. He has appeared to contradict his declared distaste of spin. And he made a serious mistake in handling the issue of an early election – a mistake that suggests that there is behind the appearance of iron resolve a much less certain political calculator.
    A more confident leader might well have gone for the kill in the period leading up to the conference season. He could have argued with some justice that he was unwilling to serve for long without a full mandate for a Brown premiership, and that the voters deserved the chance to say whether they wanted him or not. He could have launched an election campaign from the top of the “Brown bounce”. And he could have denied David Cameron the chance to make a life-saving conference speech.
    But to concentrate on these immediate mistakes does not explain the speed and scale of the decline in Gordon Brown’s standing. There are other, deeper factors at work – contextual elements that, unlike those with a short life, such as a conference speech or a mistake in presentation, are likely to influence events for some time to come.
    First, there were always going to be elements of the poison chalice about Tony Blair’s legacy to Gordon Brown. We should not forget (and nor should the Blairites) that Tony left office, not because he wanted to, but because his party saw him increasingly as an electoral liability. Glad of a change, intrigued by a new face (or at least a familiar face in a new context), the voters were always going to recall before too long that Gordon had been a centrally important figure in the Blair government. Its failings were his as well.
    Gordon knew this, too, but foreknowledge made the problem no easier to resolve. He could go just so far in drawing a line under the Blair legacy, and trying to distance himself from its more unpopular aspects. If he went too far, he would provoke several unwelcome responses.
    The first would be the predictable question – if you were at odds with this or that policy, why did you not say so at the time? More damagingly, a break with the Blair record in government would prompt a damaging counter-attack from the still powerful guardians of the New Labour project.
    And so it has turned out, and in a much shorter time than even Gordon’s enemies must have planned or hoped for. No sooner had Blairite spokespeople like Peter Mandelson declared that their long-nurtured hostility to a Brown premiership had ended than hostilities were resumed – and with a vengeance.
    The all-too familiar off-the-record briefing is suddenly in full swing. Unnamed “insiders” warn darkly that they always knew that Gordon’s personal and political deficiencies meant that he would falter sooner rather than later. For the first time in years, we are now made privy to leaks from around the Cabinet table, designed to show that Gordon’s colleagues are unhappy. Blairite ex-Ministers proclaim their readiness, in effect, to campaign against the new leader. As we know, the voters hate to see division and infighting – and they look like getting it in spades.
    Why has this happened? It is partly a matter of personal pay-back. The price is being paid for those brooding years at the Treasury, when the hint of an anti-Blair conspiracy was often in the air. But it may also be that there are issues of real political substance in play. The Blair government drew its strength only reluctantly from its democratic mandate, still less from the Labour party. Its main pillars of support were always Washington and the Murdoch press.
    Any change of policy that Gordon Brown may wish to make would cause him real problems if it provoked an adverse reaction from these powerful allies. So, even a phased withdrawal from Iraq may be seen as unacceptable. Even the most careful hint of a slight move to the left, or at least towards traditional Labour values, might ring some alarm bells. The Blairite counter-attack may not be made in the interests of its front-men alone.
    As it is, there is no quick victory – just the long haul. But the long haul – like the electoral arithmetic – may work to Gordon Brown’s advantage. He has time to get the balance right between acknowledging and distancing himself from the Blair legacy. He has time to confound his internal enemies by using the power of patronage and reminding his party of the electorate’s intolerance of disunity. He has time for the voters to understand and value his sterling qualities, and to turn his quintessential Britishness and love of his country to political advantage.
    Above all, he has time to stop paying so much attention to “advisers” and to trust his own judgment. Today’s poll means that the campaign for the next election is only just beginning.
    Bryan Gould
    15 October 2007

  • Bryan Gould on Gordon Brown

    The following article was published in the NZ Listener of 14 July.

    In the ten years after Gordon Brown and Tony Blair entered the House of Commons together in 1983, Gordon was always regarded as the senior member of the duo – slightly the older, better grounded in the Labour movement, apparently with more substance than his more charming but perhaps more superficial colleague.
    Little wonder, then, that Gordon was first bemused and then angry that the Labour Party “fixers” (and principally Peter Mandelson) decided at the last moment – and just in time for the leadership election following John Smith’s untimely death and my own decision to return to New Zealand – to back Tony as the preferred leadership candidate. Gordon was persuaded to wait for his turn – something he was promised in return for not challenging Tony’s candidature.
    The result was a ten-year wait – profitably spent, it is true, in a successful term as Chancellor of the Exchequer – but a period of increasing frustration on Gordon’s part and an increasing reluctance from Tony to keep his part of the bargain. It was only when the post-Iraq opinion polls turned sour that Tony bowed to the inevitable and that Gordon had his chance.
    What will he make of it? The omens look good. The main thing going for him is that he is not Tony. Despite Blair’s extravagant gifts, as communicator and persuader, the British public has grown tired and cynical at the glibness and the endless spin. They seem ready to embrace someone with perhaps less surface but more substance. They want, at least for the moment, someone who says what he thinks and means what he says.
    Brown also has the good fortune to face in David Cameron a Tory leader who has made the Tories electable again but who looks better suited to fighting the last war – against Blair – rather than a new battle against the more solid virtues of the new Prime Minister. There is already a “Brown bounce” in the opinion polls as the British public suddenly see the dour Scot in a new light.
    This is not to say that Gordon will find that election success falls into his lap. More than anyone else, he is ineluctably and correctly linked in the public mind with the Blair government and its record. He is as much identified with the government’s failures as is Tony. He will have a difficult task in convincing people that he can free himself of the Blair legacy; nor will there be any shortage of defenders of that legacy if he succeeds.
    And the truth is that what is known of him is not without foundation. He does find it difficult to smile and to chat to people. He does demonstrate some of the characteristics of a control freak. He is at times excessively cautious and calculating. And his record is not free from blemish, including most memorably his determined support for British membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism long after its disastrous consequences were becoming apparent.
    I remain, however, optimistic about a Brown premiership. Here is someone who is a much more authentically Labour figure than his predecessor, someone whom the voters will easily recognise and therefore trust. Here is someone who has a better grasp of the fact that we would not bother with the messy business of politics if it were not for the need to reconcile competing interests and allocate scarce resources, with the consequent inevitability that some people must be disappointed – something Blair instinctively shied away from. Here is a Prime Minister who will want to use power, as opposed to simply holding on to it, and to use it for purposes that will commend themselves to voters who want a recognisably Labour government.
    If he is to make that fresh start, however, he must do some difficult things. He must draw a line under the Iraq disaster; the appointment as Foreign Secretary of the Iraq war sceptic, David Miliband, is a good start but the most effective step would be to establish an independent inquiry into the origins of the war, and set a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops. He must reaffirm the value of public service and the public sector, and not turn always to the private sector for solutions. He must stop hobnobbing with the rich and powerful, something for which his predecessor had a fatal weakness. Above all, if he is to make that essential connection with the British public and to do so without Tony Blair’s exceptional presentational skills, he must re-establish trust in the political process. He can do that best by being his own man.
    Bryan Gould
    29 June 2007