Steve Richards: Brown has mapped out his recovery plan – but will the voters be ready to listen?

While the PM is not opposed to the private sector, he dares to put the case for government
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a week or two, no sudden crisis has erupted around the Government. No Cabinet minister has resigned. No bank has collapsed. No computer disk has disappeared. No one is talking up an early election only to talk it down again. For the first time since last September, Gordon Brown has a small amount of space to reflect and plan – at least as important as fire-fighting various crises on an hourly basis.

In this slightly less frenzied context, the Prime Minister wrote an article for The Observer on Sunday that was much more significant than it seemed. It contained no new announcements, but the projection of the arguments shines light on how Mr Brown is preparing for the battle ahead with David Cameron.

Like Mr Cameron and the US presidential candidates, Mr Brown is gripped by the need to claim ownership of "change" – the most potent and conveniently vague word in modern politics. He has a distinctive take, recognising that in Britain "change" will happen as a result of globalisation, irrespective of who wins the next election. For him, the political contest is less about which party brings about "change" but which is best equipped to make the most of the opportunities that will arise.

Mr Brown argues that globalisation means there are no limits on upward mobility. Instead, successful countries and their governments will ensure that as many people as possible fulfil their potential (an economic necessity and a moral imperative). Mr Brown points out that British literature is "full of laments for talents wasted, potential unfulfilled and opportunities foregone". In doing so, he tiptoes around what will become the biggest dividing line of the lot with Mr Cameron. The Tory leader has a clever and populist soundbite about there being "such a thing as society, but that is not the same as the state". The construct has given Mr Cameron space to claim that the Tories support a smaller state with tax cuts and yet still want a fairer society. We shall see whether he is able to answer the many questions that arise from this claim.

In the meantime, Mr Brown knows Labour cannot win an election in this anti-politics era by arguing crudely in favour of more government or a bigger state. Instead, he deployed in his article words such as "opportunity" and "aspiration" – hints of his belief that government has a role to play in empowering individuals. In connecting a moral left-of-centre argument about wasted potential with hard- headed economic pragmatism, he moves towards a construct that counters Mr Cameron's attempts to justify a smaller state.

Mr Brown is as aware as anyone that the Government has lacked coherent themes since the crises of the autumn, with disparate policies falling from a stormy sky. This was the second significant element of his article. He linked several policies around the themes of opportunity and aspiration, highlighting the expansion of children's centres, nurseries and early years' learning, ridding Britain of child poverty and the expansion of academies. The academies are an example of continuity with the Blair era, but with some refinements. Mr Brown is especially keen on universities sponsoring schools in poor areas – part of a range of initiatives aimed at encouraging gifted children from poor backgrounds to go to university.

There is a lot of speculation that Mr Brown has become more Blairite after the traumas of the autumn. This interpretation assumes that Mr Brown was "anti-reform" before and now moves on to his predecessor's agenda in a desperate bid to recover in the polls now. But when he was Chancellor, Mr Brown's differences with Tony Blair were complex. I remember him telling me during the explosive second term that nobody could be against "choice" in theory. He joked that a candidate in a US election had adopted the slogan "Choose Freedom", as if anyone would argue "against freedom". Similarly, he was not "against choice". His concerns related to resources, the need for surplus provision in order for choice to be effective, and the way in which Mr Blair was rushing to achieve his objective with a sometimes indiscriminate bias in favour of the private sector.

Mr Brown was never opposed to the use of the private sector and was quite capable of deploying it indiscriminately himself, as the recent catastrophic case of Metronet and the London Underground demonstrates. But Mr Brown also dares tentatively to put the case for government. In the article, he argued: "The opportunity revolution needs good private sector companies ... a strong voluntary sector ... but also it needs a supportive, enabling and empowering public realm." The novelty of reading about the virtues of the "public realm" should not be underestimated, even when couched so cautiously. In most of Europe, even on the right, there would be no controversy in leaders putting the case for government. But since 1979, Britain has had three Prime Ministers who never spoke about the potential effectiveness of government.

So the extreme Blairites are wrong if they hear a precise echo with their hero, but they were also wrong in the first place to categorise Mr Brown as an old Labour figure. Instead, he seeks to update the new Labour synthesis in which economic priorities and social justice work together in a new and potentially more rewarding context.

Is there a chance he will come anywhere near rebuilding the alliance of support that accompanied the original new Labour synthesis in the mid-1990s? It is difficult to underestimate the degree to which the non-election debacle threw Mr Brown off course, especially as it was followed by a series of nightmares that would have plunged any Prime Minister into despair. He also deals with a highly complicated political inheritance after Mr Blair spent much of his final phase evangelising on behalf of market-based solutions in alliance with the Conservatives and most newspapers. Already, Mr Brown is criticised by vibrant Conservative-supporting websites for daring to argue that government has a role as well as the private sector and charities.

Mr Brown also knows that he has not yet found an accessible language or forums best suited to his political style. The Observer article – and a more relaxed, informal question-and-answer session on Friday – were the equivalent of a writer's first draft. More self- aware than caricature suggests, Mr Brown also recognises that few are listening to him at the moment after an autumn of uninterrupted gloom, a lot of it self-inflicted. But he is starting to speak again and his office is under new, incomparably more efficient management.

If voters choose to pay attention they will hear a leader who has a clearer sense of destination and how to get there, compared with the competing first drafts and confused visions of various rivals outside and within his party. First, he must persuade the voters to listen.