Ed Miliband's victory in the fraternal dogfight for New Labour's tarnished inheritance makes Steve Richards's re-evaluation of Gordon Brown peculiarly timely. The contest itself was a perfect epitaph for New Labour. While the Blair-Brown duopoly dominated the party for 16 years, they left no space below them for potential successors to develop. Other ministers came and went, but no one else ever counted.
The last time a long-serving Labour Prime Minister stepped down – Harold Wilson in 1976 – the succession was contested by six candidates offering heavyweight ministerial experience and a range of sharply differentiated views, stretching from Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins through Denis Healey and Tony Crosland to Michael Foot and Tony Benn. It is a measure of Labour's emasculation under Blair and Brown that no comparable choice was on offer this time. The Miliband brothers, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham came forward as former backroom boys with no following in the country and the only the slightest ministerial credentials, wholly defined by their former allegiance as Blairites or Brownites. And the contest was conducted largely in terms of coded signals along the very narrow spectrum of New Labour.
Readers of this newspaper know Richards as one of the best political commentators around. He is sharp but serious, sceptical but not cynical, with an old-fashioned conviction that politics is an important and honourable trade and not, as so many see it, just a freakshow for their entertainment. Since the election we have suffered a glut of postmortems, mainly from the Blairite camp, blaming Brown for New Labour's disappointing record and toxic legacy. Richards claims to be one of the few journalists to have had close contacts with both camps. So it is good to have this lively distillation of his ringside view of New Labour as it evolved over nearly 20 years.
He opens, for maximum topicality, with the negotiations following this year's election, seeing the resulting coalition as the natural inheritor of Blair's "Big Tent"; almost half the book comprises a slightly rushed account of the last three painful years. He does not minimise the hopeless cack-handedness of Brown's unhappy premiership. But he also, more valuably, goes back to 1992 to remind us of the origins of New Labour in the crucial formative years of Brown's Shadow Chancellorship, first under John Smith and only later under Tony Blair, when it was Brown who laid the framework for everything – both good and bad – which followed.
Brown was Labour's coming man in 1992. It was he, far more than Blair, who absorbed the lesson of Neil Kinnock's defeat and set out by hard work and detailed application to build the reputation for prudent economic management that made Labour electable again. Blair's main contribution at this stage was to talk vaguely about crime while distancing Labour from its union links. But the restraint Brown imposed in these years was deeply unpopular with his spendthrift shadow colleagues and left him at a disadvantage when Smith suddenly died, enabling Blair to leapfrog over him to become the frontman of their joint "project", kicking off the furious psychodrama which blighted their government.
The two architects of New Labour were at one in believing that they could win over a fundamentally conservative country only by constantly reassuring Middle England. Even after they had won in 1997, they lacked the confidence of their huge majority. The more Blair talked of being "bold", the more cautious in reality he became.
Most of his "radical" policies - on law and order, on education, on Iraq – were adopted specifically to avoid being outflanked by the Tories. Winning, for Blair, was an end in itself. Brown was cautious too, but in his case it was part of a long-term strategy to deliver redistribution and fairer life-chances for the poor under the radar of the Tory press. Stealth was of the essence of his politics; for a long time it worked.
Time and again Richards cites examples of Brown achieving his social purposes under the camouflage provided by outside experts – like the banker Derek Wanless whom he set to report on the NHS – in order to legitimate progressive policies which he did not think he could get away with without such cover. Money was found for schools, hospitals, Sure Start and other social programmes.
His mistake was to believe that he could go on milking the City indefinitely, caught up – like the financial sector itself – in the fantasy of perpetually booming profits. This Faustian pact was a strange miscalculation for a Calvinistic Scot, which ultimately wrecked his hard-won reputation. For years he had made thoughtful speeches about the role of the state and the limits of markets, but failed to act on his reservations. When the bubble burst, his decisive action helped to stabilise the world economy. But his personality flaws outweighed his economic mastery, pulling Labour down to inexorable defeat. Nevertheless, Richards concludes, history will ultimately show Brown's "epic journey" to have been "much more than one loud, angry scream".
Is Ed Miliband still a Brownite? Of course, he is seeking to distance himself from both Brown and Blair. At the same time, he knows the party cannot afford to forget the key lesson of New Labour, that to win you must occupy the middle ground. But the knowledge that he was at Brown's side for ten years beavering in the Treasury surely gave him the critical votes over his more media-friendly Blairite brother.
The Brown years may have ended badly, but it was under Blair that Labour sold its soul. In the aftermath of the financial crash, it should be easier to make the case against unregulated markets and irresponsible bankers – that is, to nudge the middle ground back towards the left - than when Brown had to operate within an unquestioned Thatcherite consensus. Without going back to the Seventies, Miliband has the opportunity to rediscover some Labour values and re-inject some moral content into politics. That could be seen as some vindication of his old boss.
The second instalment of Chris Mullins's diary provides another wry, funny, exasperated commentary on the same events seen from the viewpoint of a sacked minister who feels his political life ebbing away with the government. It exudes the same decency and self-deprecation, and the same small vanities, as the first volume, and proves again that the best political diaries are written by the bit players, not the stars. What comes out strongly is, first, Mullin's insistence that with all its follies New Labour delivered tangible improvements on the ground to his poorest constituents in Sunderland; and second, a much more sympathetic appreciation of Gordon Brown than we are used to, which ties in well with Richards's portrait.
Time and again he describes Brown speaking well to the parliamentary party or in the House and getting a good response, even as the vultures are closing in on him. His despair is concentrated on the "feral" media – "the daily cocktail of misrepresentation, trivialisation and relentless cynicism which is gnawing at the foundations of our democracy". His voice of quiet anger will be badly missed in the new parliament.
John Campbell's 'Pistols at Dawn: 200 Years of Political Rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown' is published by VintageReuse content