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.