Gordon Brown, too little, too late

Quite an interesting “what-if” story in the Guardian today – what if Gordon Brown had decided to fall on his sword at the start of the election campaign in early April, instead of after he lost the election and the removalist vans were queued up outside Number 10?

As Patrick Wintour reports, it mightn’t have been all that far away from becoming reality:

Gordon Brown drafted a speech on the eve of the general election campaign setting out plans to stand down within a year of the poll, but was persuaded by senior ministers not to go ahead.

At a meeting on the eve of the election, his proposal to announce his plan to stand down was supported by David Muir, his director of political strategy and chief polling adviser. But Ed Balls, Lord Mandelson and Douglas Alexander argued against the idea. One adviser, present at the meeting where Brown’s plan was discussed, told the Guardian: “Gordon was under no illusions about his popularity, or the degree to which he was a barrier to Labour’s re-election.”

I think Balls, Mandelson and Alexander were right – but what would have happened if the Prime Minister had done the sensible thing and decided to make way for David Miliband in April 2009? It is difficult to believe that we would now have a Tory/Lib Dem Coalition Government in power, that is for certain. With a Labour pledge to reform Britain’s electoral system and clean up politics on the table and Miliband at the helm, with a year to build his stature, things could have been so much different.

Now he has a long road ahead.

Will hatred for Labour or hatred for the Tories triumph?

Modern representative democracy really does tend to have a strong “lesser of two evils” theme to it in countries where a small number of major parties dominate. One wonders to what extent the average person casts their vote with the tactical aim of keeping a particular party out of office, as opposed to voting in a strategic sense for a party that they have some belief in. With the UK election now looming, Gary Younge has what might prove to be a telling piece in the Guardian, describing why he’s not that fond of Labour but could never vote for the Tories:

I hate them for a reason. For lots of reasons, actually. For the miners, apartheid, Bobby Sands, Greenham Common, selling council houses, Section 28, lining the pockets of the rich and hammering the poor – to name but a few. I hate them because they hate people I care about. As a young man Cameron looked out on the social carnage of pit closures and mass unemployment, looked at Margaret Thatcher’s government and thought, these are my people. When all the debating is done, that is really all I need to know.

I get the impression that this election may turn out to be rather closer than one would think because of the relative prevalence of this sort of thinking, the unevenness of support for the Liberal Democrats, and the inability of the Conservatives to swing voters their way in all the seats that matter. We’ll know either way in a couple of days.

Of course, with Tony Abbott proving to be a fairly divisive figure locally, there are clear parallels with the Australian situation, and our forthcoming federal election. How many voters, a little disgruntled with Rudd Labor but very unimpressed by some of Abbott’s more extreme and controversial views, will cast their votes for the least objectionable party?

Mating sloths, bovver boys and toffs

It’s a curious fact that the United Kingdom has, only in the last twenty-four hours, fielded its first ever televised election debate. Both locally and in the United States, debates between the key party leaders have been conducted during election campaigns for many years now. Historically, British Prime Ministers seem to have been rather reluctant to cede any of their billing as media “top dog” to their political opponents. The difference this time around is the devastating nature of the challenge facing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who most people have written off in favour of David Cameron over the last few years. Of course, the other reason (antipodean chortle), is that perhaps the Brits are sometimes just a wee bit degenerate when it comes to political innovation. We have, after all, been directly electing our Senate for over a century now… whereas the House of Lords… anyway, let’s just not mention our shared head of state.

The debate outcome has been both interesting and unexpected – indeed it may serve to re-energise the election campaign for a lot of Britons. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was also invited to participate in the debate, and most commentators seem to believe he stole the show. Clegg’s performance has reignited debate around the possibility of a hung parliament, should the Liberal Democrats perform well enough to capture a decisive number of seats in the May 6 election. Polling results following on from the debate and indeed the subsequent planned debates should be very interesting indeed. One presumes that Conservative and Labour Party boffins (particularly the former) will be just a little bit nervous about what could happen if Clegg manages to ride a wave of debate-driven popularity into the final days of the election campaign.

Even if it achieves nothing else, at least this whole TV debate lark has proven quite the novelty for UK political columnists, with a few notable exceptions. I think Jackie Ashley from the Guardian is being just a tad harsh, but Australian readers might find something a little familiar in this observation:

A tame, silent audience was confronted by three leaders, who rarely made eye contact and never let fly. No real humour, no surprises, nothing spontaneous at all. No doubt some interesting things were said towards the end. Nobody was still awake to hear them.

If this was a natural history programme, it was less carnivores tearing across the plain than hanging around for far too long, waiting for sloths to mate. The television negotiators must have been grinding their teeth with disappointment.

A disturbing use of imagery, yes, but somehow, so very apt.

Manifesto chic

With the UK election campaign now in full swing, Gordon Brown’s Labour is doing its darnedest to remain competitive, despite the troubled legacy of the Blair years. Both Labour and the Conservatives have just released their election manifestos; and as Jonathan Glancey from the Guardian points out, a picture is worth a thousand words.


While Labour’s clearly shooting for Soviet-era revolutionary imagery, the David Cameron’s Tories are clearly very, very serious about the situation. In a sense both parties are trying to “cover off” (ahem) their perceived weaknesses. Labour is fighting the dreary, grey image they have cultivated for themselves with Gordon Brown with an explosion of colour here, and the Conservatives are doing their best to appear businesslike, competent and ready to govern. Looking at the covers, which one do you think is likely to be more interesting?

And the content? It would seem that with the exception of the democratisation of the House of Lords (a long overdue reform – why hasn’t Labour tackled this already?), the government probably hasn’t offered up quite enough to stay in the game.

Cutting him loose

There’s quite a lot ado about parliamentary expenses at the moment, a little bit locally, but to paraphrase the Prime Minister, there’s a whole shitstorm going on in the United Kingdom right now. Even as Kevin Rudd clings gingerly to repeat-offender Joel Fitzgibbon like one does with a somewhat disliked cousin, it is beginning to look as though the ever-escalating UK expenses scandal might be the straw that finally breaks the back of the Brown Labour Government.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is reportedly set to resign from Cabinet, and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears resigned in a shock announcement today. Now backbenchers are threatening to push a petition letter throughout the partyroom calling for Gordon Brown to abdicate, and the Guardian has taken the extraordinary step of calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation in an editorial:

All must agree that the die is cast and a hard judgment made. Otherwise progressive politics will be dragged down at a general election in May 2010 that could lead to a much bigger defeat than Labour suffered in 1979. That might bring a chance for other parties to take it forward, as the Liberal Democrats are trying to do in this election. But they are not placed to enter government. Labour has a year left before an election; its current leader would waste it. It is time to cut him loose.

It’s a little unfair that Gordon Brown should be made to pay a price for the current expenses drama, a drama in which every sitting member of parliament has a stake. The Guardian editorial is nevertheless spot on. Gordon Brown has been given a good run, but he and his government remain on an express train to electoral irrelevance at the polls next year unless something drastically, and changes very soon indeed.

Roll on David Miliband as a fresh alternative to Gordon Brown, and a man of more substance than David Cameron.

Mister fast money schmicko no longer quite so schmicko

In a political sense, it is increasingly looking like the global financial crisis has been just what the doctor ordered for British Labour and in particular Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As The Guardian reports today, a Mori poll has Labour trailing the Tories by only three points now, an amazing seventeen point improvement on what polls were suggesting a few months back before the worst of the crisis hit. For someone like myself, who lived through an extended period whereby it seemed that David Cameron and the Tories were interminably ahead of the Prime Minister by ten points or more, it’s really all quite astonishing.

So why the shift? There is surely a multitude of reasons, but I am going to offer some observations about the comparative public images of Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Brown comes across in the media as a dour, boring, wonkish man. I dare say that a majority of Britons descend into a microsleep the very moment that he appears in front of them on the television, the very second that his voice starts droning across the airwaves in earshot. While the going was good economically, twelve months or so ago, it is probably fair to say that Brown was not really in tune with the entrepreneurial energy of the times. The British people wanted boldness; they wanted action. They were not adverse to a little risk taking by their government. This is of course where the poll success of David Cameron comes in; a young business type actually willing to embrace new age concerns like global warming. He represented a fresh change and a clean break from the past. Sure, he was probably a little wet behind the ears compared to his rival, but he promised to deliver the energy that the Prime Minister seemed to lack.

Now, the tables have turned. We have entered troubling economic times, when suddenly ordinary people are interested in what dour, boring wonks have to say. They are concerned for their future. They are worried about their employment prospects. They are no longer in the mood to take financial risks, or to take a punt on an unknown quantity like David Cameron. They want surety and certainty, and someone who has a lot of experience behind them and the intellectualism required to fortify the nation against the chaos of the global financial situation.

It would be an interesting exercise to plot the poll ratings of Gordon Brown against the FTSE over the last twelve months. And it will be interesting to see if Gordon Brown manages to surge to a lead in the polls over the next six months, on the back of his superior credentials with respect to the financial crisis that seems to currently have observers the world over in a bit of a tizz.

A costly, extended moment of indecision

I highly recommend reading Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt’s article on the British election that wasn’t in the Guardian today, published as it is on the eve of the anniversary of Gordon Brown’s ascension to Prime Minister. The worrying thing for Gordon Brown and New Labour is that the article really does have the feel of a pre-emptive historical post-mortem to it. Apart from providing a fascinating account of the rationale for the “on-again, off-again” election debate that dragged throughout last year, this article also reinforces what seems to be the widespread public perception; namely that Brown and Labour are not doing enough to interest the voters.

This concluding excerpt sums things up quite nicely:

Brown remains branded in the public mind as a disingenuous ditherer. His aides insist his fate still ultimately rests with the economy, and claim his poll decline follows the downturn in the economy, rather than his decision to skip the election.

Many ministers believe his position is irretrievable, while others believe Brown may eventually recover if voters look to the future.

One cabinet loyalist says: “We can win the election. But we will only do that if it [the vote] is about our future. If it is a referendum on us, we can’t win.”

It is fairly clear that the current senior Labour team does not have the charisma or gravitas to charm its way to victory as the government may have had the ability to do previously, courtesy of figures like Tony Blair and Robin Cook. If Labour want to win the next election (seemingly now against the odds), they need to develop a compelling vision for the future and sell it to the electorate. There is no other way. David Cameron is winning and will win the “shininess” battle – Labour need to win (and be seen to win!) the battle on policy substance to stand a chance at the next poll.

ELSEWHERE Also worth a look are Martin Rowson’s merciless cartoons from the Guardian cataloguing the recent trials of the Brown Labour era.

The corrosive effect of Gordon Brown

For many years during the era of the Blair Government here in the United Kingdom, Scotsman and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown was regarded as the Prime Minister to be when Tony finally decided to step down and out of the public limelight. From what I can gather, Brown, unlike Blair in his latter days, was regarded quite favourably by many and attracted a certain degree of respect across the political divide. His avuncular character and his studied approach to politics made him, perhaps, Britain’s incarnation of Kim Beazley. While Blair’s approach to politics made him the focal point of the Labour Party while he was Prime Minister, it was seemingly always quietly observed that the brilliant Gordon Brown, behind the scenes, was one of the key driving forces for some of the better things the Labour Party did policy-wise. If Tony Blair was New Labour’s doyen of spin, Gordon Brown was thought of in some circles as Old Labour’s comparatively quiet doyen of policy. Saatchi’s infamous advertising slogan said it all. With Gordon, there really is no flash.

It has not yet been a year since Gordon Brown was anointed (without the shadow of any real competition for the role) as Prime Minister, back in June 2007. Brown seemed to hit the ground running as a leader during the early months, but since that time, something, for some reason, has been amiss. A public that had gorged itself on glossy and effective spin during the Blair years now found itself observing a somewhat grizzled Scot, prone to grumbling and often short of a trick in the charisma stakes. The association of Brown, in a sense, with “Old Labour” has proven to be an albatross. The Tory leader, David Cameron, looks comparatively young, fresh, and full of energy, and if the current trend continues, looks likely to be the next Prime Minister of Britain. It is a sign of the times that this characterisation of Brown from comedian Rory Bremner (published in The Guardian this weekend) hits Gordon’s plight so squarely on the head:

It’s a bit like having an uncle who’s been building something in the shed at the bottom of the garden for the past 10 years, and you go down to see what he’s up to, and you look through the window – and there’s nothing there.

For the majority of the past year, the question of Brown’s leadership has been handled with kid gloves by the media. Brown has been attacked mercilessly on no end of absurd fronts, of course, but the question of whether he really was the best person to lead the Labour Party at this time has not been raised very often at all. Unfortunately, but in a realistic sense fairly, it seems some in the professional media are starting to lose patience with the Prime Minister’s performance. Martin Kettle has quite a stinging opinion piece in The Guardian today that could well lead to a snowballing of leadership speculation:

Brown is not ready to give up, but nor is he confident he can win the public’s support back. For whatever reason, he lacks the certainty of his predecessor. Even when Blair was wrong, he was clear about where he was heading. But Brown lacks Blair’s confidence – and this is now corrosive. “The challenge is primarily psychological,” says a senior minister, “It’s about being confident.” “He simply doesn’t know what to do,” responds a senior backbencher. “There’s no sense of direction whatever. There’s nothing there.”

I would like to believe that policy really is king, and that all that Gordon Brown has to do to lift Labour’s flagging fortunes is to hit back at the Opposition with a wave of thoughtful, progressive policy reform. Reality, of course, is crueler and more fickle. Despite the fact that there probably isn’t so much of a hair’s breadth between Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd in a policy sense on quite a lot of issues that one might consider, Beazley was unable to achieve in his three stints as Opposition Leader what Rudd achieved in his first. Leadership is as much about presentation as it is about policy, and at the moment, Gordon Brown is looking very much like the poor cousin of Tony Blair in this regard. “The flash” was not just there for show with Blair; it was needed.

I don’t think Labour can simply ignore the question of the leadership, in the somewhat yellow belief that Gordon Brown will lead the party to the next election, come what may. Brown himself and the senior members of the party should privately set a timetable detailing at what point other options for the leadership should be considered, if indeed Brown’s political fortunes continue to stagnate over the coming months as they are presently. I don’t doubt that the Prime Minister means well and is doing his darnedest to win over the punters, but he must, for the sake of the Labour Party, be judged on results, not just his efforts. The media and the party’s kid gloves must come off, because the current malaise is toxic and unsustainable.

The war on terror: not exactly a chart topper

The British Labour Party has published a list of its top fifty achievements in office since Tony Blair lead “New Labour” to power all the way back in 1997, on a wave of enthusiastic public support. As is often the case with lists of this nature, what has been omitted from the list is arguably just as interesting as what has actually been listed. There is not a single reference to the “war on terror” or any related measures aimed at improving security for British citizens. There is not a single reference to the war on Iraq. There is not a single reference to the Blair Government’s involvement in the conflict in the Balkans during the late 1990’s. There is not a single reference to the party’s somewhat conflicted position on adopting the Euro. In total, this all seems to represent an implicit admission by the party that the Labour Party’s foreign policy actions over the last decade are not something which it is proud of.

What I would like to see from the Labour Party here in the UK is a refreshing outburst of honesty. Accompanying this inescapably jaundiced list of fifty greatest achievements over the last decade, why not issue a list of the party’s ten greatest failures over the last decade, and then issue a comprehensive policy platform to address each of these failures? The Howard Government did the best it could to hide its numerous policy failures over the years, and by the end had far too much pride (or perhaps, hubris) to highlight the things it had done wrong and the things it could have done better. Its favoured approach was to soldier on practically regardless of what ordinary people thought of its policies, admitting as little fault as possible, and persistently attacking the Opposition’s credibility. That approach worked a treat in 2004 when Mark Latham proved quite vulnerable to a sustained smear campaign centred on his experience and temperament, but Kevin Rudd proved a much more teflon-like Opposition leader throughout 2007 and the rest is now history.

The British Labour Government, with a new leader in Gordon Brown, has an excellent opportunity to make a clean break from the past, and set a dynamic new course for the future. This may well entail the public disownment of some of the less attractive political legacies of the Blair years, but unless a clean break with the past is made, it is all too easy to see a similar scenario enfolding at the next election in Britain as unfolded in Australia last year. There are lots of criticisms that one can make of Tory Leader David Cameron, but he is certainly an Opposition Leader of the teflon-coated variety. That means that Gordon Brown in his team need to start rolling out some big, positive policy ideas if they are to emerge triumphant from the next election.

Great clunking fist meets online world

I don’t know what, if any sense, everyone is getting of it down in Australia, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (aka “great clunking fist”) is enduring a pretty torrid spell in political terms at the moment. In several months the man has not been able to take a trick, with the government shuddering to embarrassing scandal to embarrassing scandal. Tory leader David Cameron is doing a pretty good job of delivering ruthless soundbites to the media, and there is a certain sense out there that Brown might not be able to dig his way out of the hole he and Labour find themselves in post-Blair. After the former Prime Minister’s somewhat acrimonious departure, people need to find a reason to elect a Brown Labour Government. For the time being, at least, they’re still looking.

Well for once, UK Labour is following the lead of its Australian counterpart rather than vice-versa, and engaging YouTube in a concerted manner, with Labour:vision (warning: Gordon Brown video plays on page load). In general I am fairly sceptical that YouTube can play a really significant role in improving the current relationship between Labour and the electorate. On the other hand, there is little point denying that such a venture does actually stand a chance of getting through to people who otherwise would not have thought twice about the Labour Party or what it stands for. However, its scope is limited. As part of a comprehensive and coherent online strategy to engage people and interest people in public life and policy, something like Labour:vision can play a role. However, I think Brown Labour still has some way to go towards cultivating that sort of robust approach to the online world. The danger is that this latest move may be dismissed as desperate gimmickry by some.

Probably the best thing Labour could do right now is to deliver some positive policy proposals for debate, and seize the news agenda back from the Tories. At the moment, the government is in the strange position of being left in the lurch as its world disintegrates (due to circumstances variously within and beyond their control), whilst David Cameron jabs them rather assiduously with a red hot poker. It’s not a very pretty sight.