Johann Hari: The man who could sell Gordon Brown

If you want serious hints about the future of British politics, look to the plains of Iowa
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The Independent Online

The question obsessing the Westminster village - that tiny horde of people who huddle at the far end of Westminster Bridge and run the country - is: what kind of Prime Minister will Gordon Brown turn out to be? But in the endless babble about who's up and who's down, big clues about Brown's politics - and how they might affect real people in that mysterious Real World that sometimes rudely intrudes on their game of musical chairs - get lost.

One of those missed clues has been the quiet appointment of Bob Shrum, one of the most influential men in American politics, to advise Gordon Brown on the long march to the next general election.

From the moment in 2004 that it was revealed Michael Howard had appointed Lynton Crosby to mastermind his election campaign, it was possible to foresee how the Tory election campaign would flail and fail. While the Westminster village was trying to divine significance in obscure Shadow Cabinet reshuffles and silly speeches, they could have simply looked up Crosby's modus operandi. The man touched down in Conservative Central Office fresh from authoring John Howard's fourth Australian landslide, and served up a carbon-copy of the hard-right Abo-slapping campaign he had pioneered back home. From the fixation on immigration to the attacks on a wicked "liberal elite", Crosbyism belly-flopped into Britain and dominated British politics. But because the runes lay far from Westminster - all the way in Australia - they were missed by our parochial Village, more gripped by the latest Blair-Brown spat.

The silence that has greeted Bob Shrum's arrival seems eerily similar. A third of the Democrats elected to the Senate were steered there by Shrum, and he has worked as a speech-writer and campaign co-ordinator for presidential candidates from George McGovern to John Kerry.

He grew up in Los Angeles in a family filled with reverence for Franklin Roosevelt and the American liberal tradition, and went on to script the most memorable lines to fall from American liberals' mouths for three decades. But Shrum is more than a few slabs of purple prose and a shelf of focus group reports. Just as with Crosby, he brings a wide-reaching philosophy, and it is revealing that Gordon Brown - as he finally nears the end of his long transition to No 10 - has chosen him.

Shrum has derided the Clintonian New Democrats who "set their compass only off the direction of others, who talk about the political centre but fail to understand that, if it is only defined by others, it lacks core values".

In their place, he offers an old-style American populism distilled down to its core in his phrase: "The people versus the powerful." The populist wing of American liberalism has often been its most fertile, even as it is defamed or simply forgotten. It was the Populist Party in the early 20th century that first proposed a progressive income tax, anti-trust regulation to stop corporations rigging markets, and a central banking system with control over the money supply. They were the first people to call for serious democratic restraints on the operation of corporations, crafting the agenda that FDR was to follow in the 1930s - and the Republicans were to systematically dismantle, from the 1980s to the present day.

Of course, American populism is smothered in its cot by the fact that any politician who wants to run for office is required to grovel and scrape to billionaires to get the funds for their political campaigns - a situation that is seeping across the Atlantic, and will only end with state funding of political parties.

But at a time when everybody is predicting Brown will swerve to the right when he becomes Prime Minister, it is mildly encouraging that he has indulged his leftish side by turning to Shrum. Brown's populist streak has occasionally poked through over the past decade, from his windfall tax on the "grotesque profits" from utility privatisation to the Laura Spence affair. It was possible to see the first streaks of Shrummery in his Budget aspiration to raise state spending per pupil, a classic jab at the privileged on behalf of the Ordinary Person.

An economic populist could not ask for better targets than David Cameron, George Osborne and their effete Notting Hill set, an old Etonian and the multimillonaire heir to a corporate fortune. There are hints in Shrum's former campaigns about how he will urge Brown to tackle this public school clique. In 1996, John Kerry fought a tough senatorial election race against Bill Weld. He was a softer, gentler, more moderate Republican who tried to paint Kerry as a fossilised remnant of the old liberalism. (Sound familiar?) Shrum relentlessly, ruthlessly painted Weld as a head-banging extremist in disguise, constantly linking him with the hard-right in his own party. It worked. Kerry won.

But in addition to drawing out the powerful populist side of Brown, Shrum may also draw out some of his uglier instincts. Shrum likes dirt. When one of his clients was running against Ann Richards, the great liberal governor of Texas, she refused to say whether she had used drugs. Shrum ran a vicious series of adverts asking, "Did she use marijuana, or something worse, like cocaine, not as a college kid, but as a 47-year-old elected official sworn to uphold the law?"

Will he urge Brown to stealthily revive the ambiguities in Cameron's past? Worse still, Shrum has a record of using xenophobia to bolster otherwise-progressive causes. For example, in 1988 he counselled Dick Gephardt to run hard against Japanese and Korean imports. "Why do we let Hyundais into America scot-free while the Koreans slap nine different taxes and tariffs on American cars?," his attack-ads demanded. Brown has been fond of bashing the European Union in similar terms to court the Murdoch-and-Mail press and flatter their Euroscepticism. Can we expect to see more of this with Shrum around?

Of course, there are some who say Brown is crazy to recruit Shrum, and mutter about The Curse. He has fought eight presidential elections, and lost every one. Why turn to a proven loser? But in reality, the election campaign that Shrum had most control over - Al Gore's - was won by his man by more than half a million votes. It was only the corruption in Florida that kept him out of power. Besides, Shrum has a superb track record in elections fought in liberal states - and if Britain was a state of the union, it would be the most liberal of all, alongside New York and California.

So if you want serious hints about the future of British politics, skip the smoky bars of Westminster. Look to the plains of Iowa and Massachusetts and New York, the sites of Bob Shrum's silent victories.