Is Gordon Brown a mirage in the desert? The more I hear of him the more anxious I get that it’ll all go horribly wrong.
Looking round the Cabinet, it’s hard to find inspiring figures. Almost by definition, the Home Secretary has to be a bit of a brute. Blair’s self-imposed role as ambassador to the world makes Jack Straw look a bit irrelevant, and then of course David Blunkett is stuck in for good measure. Of everyone left at the top of New Labour – Brown is most definitely my man. And this is what worries me.
Tony Blair’s golden gift to the Labour Party was to appeal to ‘Middle England’ – those fine men and women who manage to complain about the state of the local hospital and the tax raised to fund it simultaneously. He convinced that that New Labour was different from the days of ‘tax and spend’ Labour, which was a tricky feat, given that Government’s role is inevitably to do just that. (What would they prefer – tax and keep?)
And while each election loses a slice from the Old Labour left voters to the Lib Dems (probably) or RESPECT (if they’re feeling particularly daring) or not even voting at all, there’s a corresponding dispatch of ‘Middle England’ back to the Tories, where they’ve always felt most comfortable. But like it or not, both camps still need to be courted by Labour if they are to stay in power.
Now back to Brown – and why I like him. First of all, it’s important to stress he is in no way a return to some mythical Labour past, or a ‘lurch to the left’ as some might have been hoping. This is good news. Apart from being electoral suicide, it would be disastrous to try and march backwards to a world of unchecked trade union power, without the pace of modern globalisation. No one wants that. (OK, maybe George Galloway wouldn’t mind.) Don’t forget that the Chancellor is a key architect of New Labour – a big fan of PFI and quite keen on winning elections, too.
No, I’m keen on Brown because I think he’s got a much more inspiring vision of the future than that. He’ll already been the driving force behind much of the social policy that Labour has implemented, often while Blair was busy on the ranch choosing between Baghdad and Basra. His focus on means testing for benefits is much criticised – yet it remains an effective way of redistributing wealth. And there has been massive investment in the public services – witness the rare but welcome good news story that “three and four-year-olds in the United Kingdom are receiving the best-funded education in the industrialised world”. He even – [gasp] – rose national insurance to pay for it.
My hope is that Brown ‘gets it’. That he knows the best, no, only way of competing economically with nations such as China is to invest in our country and its institutions to allow it to compete – and more importantly – raise children who can unlock their potential. We should be furiously building a nation of equal opportunity – it’s not only right, it’s good economic sense to exploit Britain’s ‘human resources’ as much as possible.
My worry is that his undeniable control-freakery will alienate the allies Brown needs to become Prime Minister and stay Prime Minister. If the Conservative Party see sense and elect Ken Clarke as leader it’ll be doubly hard, but even if they don’t we could still end up with a Tory government because Brown will have failed to convince that vital ‘Middle England’ that he knows where he’s going (and that’s it’s somewhere they like!) and also managed to hold the left on board at the same time. (The ones still onboard at all that is.)
I guess the real test will be whether Brown, as leader, can put the ongoing spectre of Iraq behind the Labour party. And that depends on the current occupant going quietly and in the meantime, if we’re lucky, using his historic third term to do something interesting rather than ‘city academies’ and ‘respect’ all the time. Come on Tony… work your diminished magic one last time and ensure a smooth transition to your successor.
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