Gordon Brown at Bay

Argus title :

Gordon Brown is in deep trouble and British voters have a dilemma. We face a choice between a whey-faced prime minister tormented by the ghost of Tony Blair – or a Blair lookalike in the person of David Cameron.

There is nothing new and fresh about Cameron. He has the overt or covert support of the newspaper owners who backed Tony Blair (including influential people within the traditionally Labour newspaper The Guardian), not because he represents a departure from the old, but because he offers a continuation of the same – dressed in a cloak of what appear to be progressive new ideas.

Despite Brown’s great admiration for the USA, the US government would certainly prefer a Blair or a Cameron to him. Brown may not have acted acted courageously and swiftly enough with regard to withdrawal from Iraq, but equally he has not scampered to obey White House orders as Blair did. His genuine concern to end world poverty cannot play well with Washington’s hawks. And Brown’s recent decision to face down the military and commit the UK to a ban on cluster bombs will have infuriated many powerful Americans.

In the UK the business interests which supported Blair, and now support Cameron, have no true party political loyalty and will go to whoever best protects their profits. This is why money is now flowing freely into Tory coffers and draining away from Labour’s. Only this week the Guardian reported that the Labour Party is struggling to pay off loans to banks and wealthy donors. The total debt, with interest, is reported to be £24m. There is a real risk of bankruptcy.

When Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party, after the tragedy of John Smith’s death, it was all very different. There was great excitement that this highly charismatic, personable young man had taken control. The former MP Tony Benn warned sombrely that Blair would be the most right wing leader Labour had ever seen. It was an uncharacteristrically ungracious comment from the famously polite Benn, but of course he proved to be right.

The British electorate hoped for great things from the Blair government, but over time was bitterly disappointed. There were achievements which eased the plight of the poor, but overall it was a timid government, wedded to Thatcherite principles, in the grip of corporate and media bosses and in thrall to the USA. Inequalities of wealth increased and public services were undermined.

A divided Tory party and a series of incompetent Tory leaders eased Blair’s way and he continued to do well in the polls. However, the bloody invasion of Iraq and the growing awareness that Parliament had been misled created public fury. It was obvious Blair had to go, but there was no obvious Blairite successor.

In 2003 Brown had made a barn-storming speech to Party Conference, apparently heralding a bid for party leadership, stating that Labour is “.best when we are Labour.” This was widely interpreted as a rejection of Blairism.

Blair stayed on in office while his supporters frantically searched for a possible opponent to Brown – all the while feeding negative news stories about Brown to the media. Brown was elected unopposed, but arguably too late and weakened by negative spin.

It was clear that if he was to assert his authority he needed to make decisions visibly different from Blair’s discredited policies. However, he did not. Seemingly transfixed by the need to keep Blairites on board, he either made changes so quietly that the public was barely aware of them or courted possible backbench rebellion by needlessly persisting with deeply unpopular policies, such as proposals for 42 day detention.

A very laudable intention by Brown to end a culture of authoritarianism and media “spin” has resulted in a media free for all in which Blairites and the Tories call the shots. Brown has allowed a level of latitude to his critics which Blair would never have permitted.

Each error Brown has made has been mercilessly exposed by a hostile media, while the Tories – aware that Brown’s greatest assets as Chancellor were his perceived persistence, strength and ability – have successfully presented Brown as “dithering” , “weak” and even “incompetent”. He seems frozen in the Tory headlights, not least because – having finally escaped one Blair – he is faced by another.

In David Cameron the electorate is confronted by another charismatic young leader who like Blair tells them that the days of class division are over, while promising radical change, low taxes and a better deal for poor families. On some issues, he appears more progressive than Labour.

David Cameron has committed himself to make Britain more “family friendly” saying: “That includes paying couples to live together rather than apart, and more help for parents in the crucial early years, through reforms such as a massively expanded health visitor service and flexible parental leave.” He has indicated that mothers of small children who wish to remain at home will be supported to do so.
The Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland has recently asked how Cameron would achieve this given that he wants to take Britain “out of the European social chapter, which guarantees some of the employment protections essential for family life”. He also asks how Cameron would pay for it.
Cameron says that, “instead of using the old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control, we will use the modern mechanisms of civil society – whether it’s businesses … social enterprises … or charities and community groups.” It is difficult to imagine how charities could achieve this given the chronic underfunding of the sector.
There is no reason to believe the Tories will increase funding. In fact, Oliver Letwin, Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Review, said recently “Many things that are done by the government or the private sector could be done more effectively or more cheaply by the third sector”.
I fear a hidden agenda. I suspect that not only will charities be expected to pick up the slack, but that even more unpaid women will be deployed as unpaid service deliverers. In fact, whenever I hear the phrase “support for families” I start to feel the chill of sharp steel at my back. I mistrust politicians who say they want to assist mothers of young children to stay at home.
It’s fine if staying home is mothers’ free choice, but there are suggestions Cameron’s Tories may offer inducements to do so – and fund them by cuts to childcare services. So women will have less choice. When I hear that the Tories want to provide tax benefits to married “couples”, I fear a return to the bad old days when married men received tax advantages from which their families rarely benefited.
If Gordon Brown wants to win the next election – and this is still possible – he needs to pursue a few imaginative and progressive policies which are obviously different from those of the Blairites – and do so before Cameron can make the running on them. If he doesn’t, he’s sunk.
Brown’s principled decision to ban cluster bombs was a great step forward. A specific and well-publicised commitment to require the USA to remove its stockpiles on UK soil within the 8 year limit would be fully consistent with this decision and gain huge public support – not least because it would reveal a British prime minister standing up to the USA.
It’s said that the botched 10 p tax was “Brown’s poll tax”. I disagree. It is the closure of post officers which comprehensively besmirches Brown’s government – revealing it as indifferent to the plight of the elderly, the poor, the disabled and small business people – as well as entire rural and urban communities. If Brown acts decisively to stop the closure, he will at a stroke draw many millions of voters back to Labour.
Brown needs to focus upon the elderly and this country’s army of unpaid female carers. Instead of announcing a review of payment for elderly care services, which from the start excluded the possibility of free care, Brown should first have committed the government to provide free care to those elderly and disabled people whose lives would be at risk without it. The entire country knows he could pay for it by fair taxation of the corporations and wealthy individuals who have done so well under Labour – or by scaling back Britain’s military adventures.
The media would condemn him, but then they already do. The voters, in contrast, would greatly approve.

They’d recognise courage when they saw it. And that’s what is urgently needed.

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