Why Gordon Brown is Still Standing!
The Scotsman, July 21st 2009
Gordon Brown has been Prime Minister and Labour leader for two years. During this time, he has been battered, patronised, ridiculed and written off as useless, and not the telegenic type of politician required in the modern age – such as Tony Blair and David Cameron.
His government is universally seen as drifting and rudderless, his own style as divisive and very male, running his inner circle as a ‘boy’s club’, while the Labour Party after twelve years in office, is millions in debt, and has alienated so many of its own supporters that it recently gained its lowest vote ever since becoming a national party.
This is the dominant narrative about Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. Yet there is another perspective, which while not offering a full defence of Brown, does show that things are a bit more complex. This emphasises that Gordon Brown is a formidable politician, ‘a fighter, not a quitter’ to quote Peter Mandelson in another context, who is restless, driven and a tireless campaigner who should not be written off just yet.
Gordon Brown has survived two attempted two coups, and the constant drip of Blairite briefings against him from the ‘has beens’ and disappointed on the backbenches.
Whatever deep, horrible problems Labour face, the government still believes it is achieving things, clearing up the messes it inherited (and created) in the Blair era: pulling out of Iraq, attempting to clear up politics and aid the economy out of recession.
It still does not need to search for problems in these or other areas: refusing to set out a strategy for our under-resourced troops in Afghanistan, and making ham-fisted retreats on ID cards and Post Office privatisation. More seriously there is no real convincing post-Blair narrative joining all of the government’s actions together.
What this illustrates is that the government has not yet reached the dismal standards of the Major Government of 1992-97, while the Conservatives have not reached the starry heights of New Labour in 1994-97. Brown’s Labour may not have a narrative, and may not amount to more than the sum of its parts. The Cameron Conservatives have yet to find a plausible, coherent narrative which deals with the world after the ‘good times’ have gone. They have not succeeded in ‘detoxing the brand’, a fact reinforced by the Andy Coulson/News of the World scandal.
The simplistic media narrative is that Labour are tired, corrupt and useless, while the Conservatives are the government in waiting, fresh, new and ready to serve. The facts point to a more subtle picture: of a hollowed out Labour Party still not completely broken, and an incomplete Conservative transformation who have much more to do to change and win voters’ trust.
The Conservatives are despite everything not dead certs to win the next election. In the Euro and local elections they polled unconvincingly, only winning (like the SNP) due to Labour unpopularity. The electoral system still works against them and they need to win a huge number of seats to have a majority of just one seat.
Since 1945 – only once – have we gone from a full Parliament of four to five years with a working majority of one party, to a full Parliament with a majority of another party. That one was the ‘unhappy’ example of Ted Heath in 1970. Both Thatcher in 1979 and Blair in 1997 won against opponents who had already lost their parliamentary majorities. Thus, the odds against Cameron winning an overall majority in ‘one heave’ are high, but not impossible.
Brown supporters believe the limitations of the Cameron Conservatives provide an opportunity to bring out the best in ‘their man’. They cite two examples which show Brown coming from behind and turning the tide; both are Scottish antecedents.
First, are the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections. In the year long run in to these the Salmond-led SNP established a large lead over Labour. Brown and Douglas Alexander reacted by coming north, taking charge of the campaign and inventing the slogan, ‘Divorce is an expensive business’ to emphasis the dangers of separatism. The SNP were thrown off balance, Labour recovered, and the party won a lead of 10% over the Nationalists to form an administration with the Lib Dems.
Second, are the 2007 Scottish elections. According to Philip Gould, Labour pollster, the party was 10-12% behind the Nats with weeks to go and nearly snatched victory from defeat in a ‘heroic campaign’. In the last Blair-Brown campaign, Blair was ‘magnificent’, Brown ‘like a tank’ and Douglas Alexander ‘pathologically determined to win’ as the SNP lead was reduced to the narrowest whisker!
Both of these accounts are partial, overstate Brown’s role, ignore others on Labour’s side, and the role of the SNP, in not being prepared for the pressures in 1999, while being hungry to win in 2007.
What they do underline is that Brown as well as having weaknesses, is a powerful politician, and can be an adept campaigner, as he also showed in the 2005 UK election.
Three times already in his short premiership he has enjoyed sizeable bounces. First, when he became PM which he threw away in the election which never was, second, when, in his own words, ‘he saved the world’ as the banks and global economy tottered, and third, after the London G20 summit. Each of these ‘Brown bounces’ has been smaller than the one before, seeming to suggest an increasingly settled public view of Brown.
It is just possible that a man written off as dead, underestimated and caricatured by the media and his opponents could do it again. It is clear that politics are not as cut and dried as the dominant account of Labour and Conservatives suggests.
The odds must still be on a David Cameron Conservative Government next year, but the prism of possible victory is very narrow, and don’t be surprised if the next year produces the ‘inevitable surprise’ of the unpredictable, and something much more messy and interesting than many currently think.