Gordon Brown's final press conference of the year yesterday provided a useful reality check after one of the more hysterical phases in British politics. There he was at the end of the year, calm and good humoured. Yet apparently he had spent the summer walking on water, while becoming a dead man walking by Christmas. The cautious radicalism conveyed at the press conference suggests he neither strode the seas in July, nor is dead in December.
Instead of rising and falling like some wild Biblical figure, Brown has spent quite a lot of time working away on the outlines of a potentially compelling narrative. Yesterday, he highlighted the new focus on education policies that will begin at the age of three and continue until 18 in contrast to the current complacent arrangements where many are left stranded too young, with wasted and impoverished lives to follow.
In relation to the NHS, he said the Government was working on making GPs more accessible to patients, probably at least as challenging as establishing peace in the Middle East. Elsewhere, three million homes were being built to address the chronic housing shortage. On what was, until recently, the most toxic issue in British politics, he noted accurately that Britain was in a better place now in relation to the nightmare of Iraq.
Compare this agenda with Tony Blair's pre- Christmas press conference two years ago. At his most self-absorbed and messianic, Blair declared: "Parts of the Labour party might not like what I am doing. Some in the Conservative party might not like it. I am going to do what is right and if I am attacked from the left and the right so be it".
Blair was talking about his Schools' White Paper which was described, even by those who approved of some its contents, as one of the more illiterate and incoherent documents to be published over the past ten years and that is saying something. Blair was a wonderful communicator, but he rarely applied his genius to advancing unfashionable causes. Quite often, his persuasive powers were deployed to reinforce the right-wing orthodoxy that had prevailed in Britain since the 1980s. The pre-eminence of the relationship with the US and the virtues of the private sector were his favourite themes.
Brown has shifted the agenda to improving the quality of public services without conceding he is "anti-reform". Even now, at his lowest moment, he does not resort to attacking his party to prove his own machismo. These are significant improvements to the final phase of Blair's leadership, but since the non-election cock-up no one listens. As I outline the modest progress Brown has made, I feel as if I am swimming in a cold sea when everyone else has left for warmer climes.
Yet the policies are real and tangible, more substantial and fleshed out than the fleeting diversions of the summer that attracted strangely rave reviews for Brown. So how does he make people listen again?
Evidently, scheming triangulation works no longer, but rebounds on the supposedly cunning instigator. Brown's fall began with the visit to Iraq during the Conservatives' conference. He sought to convey a sense of prime ministerial duty to pro-war newspapers while announcing or re-announcing a reduction of troops to please those against the war. He pleased no one. Similarly, his triangulated attempt to revive the detention without charge issue "I want an extension, but will offer more safeguards" looks as if it will cause big trouble for him in the new year. More recently, the contortions over the signing of the EU treaty "I will sign it, but later" damaged him and no one else. These clumsy manoeuvres aimed at building a big tent of support do not work any more, not after ten years in government.
Instead, Brown must construct a language to make his genuinely rooted concerns more accessible. I am surprised he has not done this yet. In the mid-1990s, he was the main author of a new populist language for the left of centre: "for the many and not the few", "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", "prudence for a purpose", "opportunity for all". He needs new phrases to convey his determination to build on the improvements in public services over the past ten years, something about the quality of life that matters to everyone, from the multi-millionaire to the poorest. The Conservatives are building an armoury of potent phrases which, in effect, echo Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, when she said she would get the state off our backs. There needs to be some populist attempt at a defence of government activity or else the Conservatives will win, as they did in 1979.
The prospects are better for such a defence now compared with the period around the winter of discontent when the corporatist culture was decaying vividly. As I have written before, on every specific issue at the moment politics moves leftwards, while the general debate is rooted firmly on the right. The general assumption is that public spending is a waste and yet everyone screams for more money on defence and police pay.
In general, the state is regarded as a threatening instrument, yet across the political spectrum there are calls for Northern Rock to be nationalised. In the abstract, government activity is seen as a bad thing, yet everyone looks to government to address climate change. This is a more propitious moment for a progressive language than 1997 and yet it is now that Labour is way behind in the polls.
Brown must forget about the blurred vision required to keep everyone happy in a big tent. The device worked briefly in the summer, but what a shallow lead it created. If a cock-up over election timing blows it apart, his big tent could not have been built on very much. This time, he must construct more solid foundations, even if that means occasionally ceasing to worry about whether The Times and The Daily Mail approve. There are the outlines of a substantial agenda, but they need to become part of a coherent programme rather than disparate policies that drop from an increasingly dark sky.
It will be tough. The new year will not be a fresh start. They never are for governments in trouble. I predict 2008 will open with dire opinion polls for Brown and the BBC will spend hours seeking disgruntled Labour MPs. A producer will find one. The MP will be quoted in the next day's papers and the sense of crisis will be up and running again. But in the longer term there is still much to play for as far as Brown is concerned.
Look back at the cuttings. Brown has been seemingly doomed many times before, doomed to be sacked as chancellor, doomed to be marginalised during the 2005 election, doomed to be a chancellor presiding over a fatal economic downturn, doomed never to be prime minister. Don't write off the Prime Minister yet.Reuse content