• Was Gordon Brown’s Reputation Justified?

    Like so many others, I looked forward to Gordon Brown’s accession to Number Ten. Here, I thought, was the chance of breaking with the spin and superficiality of the Blair years. With Gordon, we would surely hear the authentic voice of Labour and welcome the end, even if it was not publicly acknowledged, of the New Labour project.

    Why have those expectations been so comprehensively dashed? How did we get it so wrong? Why is Gordon’s leadership proving such an unmitigated disaster?

    There is not one, but several answers to these questions. Those who saw in Gordon a mere technocrat, a bloodless (not to say desiccated!) calculating machine, may have had a point after all. Here, it seems, is a man who may live and breathe politics, but who is incapable of articulating what he feels about it. The more he talks of his “vision” the more arid it seems.

    We can now see that his many critics may have been right in condemning him for being more comfortable with figures than with people. Those long years of apprenticeship in The Treasury may have been, perhaps, an amazing stroke of luck – providing him with the closeted comfort of doing his sums while never having to confront the real blood and guts world of real politics.

    And how lucky he was in another sense. He inherited an economy that had been released from the bondage of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and which accordingly proceeded to out-perform our European competitors, saddled as they were with euro-driven centro-monetarism, by a comfortable margin. This was the era of the easy-credit property bubble. The tenant of Number 11 Downing Street needed to do no more than look and sound tough, and then sit back and garner the plaudits of those who reaped the profits – plaudits which hugely inflated an unearned reputation.

    It may be that that reputation has always been much more substantial than was ever deserved. I have recently consulted my own memoir of the period when Gordon Brown as Shadow Chancellor insisted, even more fiercely than the Tory government, that the United Kingdom should remain within the ERM, come what may. I noted at the time that “it has always been a puzzle to me that people who make mistakes of such magnitude and reveal such a total inability to understand the issues of which they are supposed to be masters nevertheless sail serenely on, unscathed by any suggestion that they might not be up to the job.”

    Gordon’s reputation as a successful Chancellor and a Prime Minister in waiting may, perhaps, always have been based on a soufflé of good fortune and complacent media who were content to go along with the myth rather than probe for the reality. And the Labour Party itself failed to meet its responsibilities as well.

    When the time came to elect a successor to Tony Blair, the Party had its one chance to satisfy itself that the Brown reputation was justified. A leadership election would have provided a contest of ideas, of vision, of sheer political nous, which might have been enough to ring alarm bells.

    It was with that goal in mind that I was prompted to stand against John Smith, another widely anointed successor to the leadership, in 1992. Unhappily, no one could be found in today’s Labour Party to undertake such a daunting but necessary task.

    So, is Gordon – and his personal qualities or lack of them – solely to blame for the debacle? Certainly not. The tragedy for Gordon is that a career that was blessed for so long by extraordinary good fortune has now seen his luck turn big-time. His undoubted strengths might continue to have won the day but for two strokes of bad luck over which he has had little control.

    The first is the bursting of the credit bubble and the consequent and threatening damage to the whole international banking sector and world economy. It could be argued that, as Chancellor for most of the relevant period, he cannot escape blame for what has happened, but – even so – there are many reputations other than his that must, in the light of what we now know, be reviewed even more savagely.

    The second is that he is not, in reality, a first-term Prime Minister. The Blair-Brown duo is so well-established in the public mind that Gordon has not had the luxury of a fresh start and fresh hopes for his government. The failures of the Blair government, and the disenchantment not only with Labour politics but with a politics as a whole, are Gordon’s failures as well. His long-time friend and rival has had the last laugh. The keys to Number Ten came enclosed in a poison chalice.

    Bryan Gould

    28 July 2008

    This article appeared in the online Guardian on 28 July

  • 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