Steve Richards: Gordon Brown is nowhere, yet everywhere

Without acknowledgement from either side, it is Brown's rulebook that persists


As George Osborne was delivering his Autumn Statement last year, I received a text from someone who had worked for Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor. It read: "I feel as if I am listening to one of Gordon's speeches." The text appeared as Osborne joked about how he had received calls from "some quarters" to slow down his spending cuts. He was rejecting the advice because he did not want to wreck the economy. Of course he was referring to calls that had come from his political opponents. Brown always made precisely the same joke in relation to the Conservatives when making financial statements. There will almost certainly be more such echoes next week in the Budget.

I was reminded of the text as I watched Ed Miliband and Ed Balls deliver their pre-Budget press conference yesterday. I felt I was listening to one of Brown's press conferences, this time from the opposition era when he was shadow chancellor leading up to the 1997 election.

In opposition, Brown made relatively cautious proposals that symbolised a wider political purpose while causing much difficulty for his opponents. Yesterday, Miliband and Balls announced a single new proposal, in effect a tax rise for high earners through changes to tax relief on pensions. The tax rise and spending proposal were both Brown-like in their guile.

The influential Lib Dem MP David Laws recently proposed changing tax relief on the pensions of high earners. Balls knows that Laws's proposal was made for one of two reasons. Either the tax relief was likely to be announced in the Budget and the Lib Dems were keen to get the credit in advance, or Osborne is less keen than the Lib Dems, and Laws was applying pressure. If it is the former, Balls gets there first. If it is the latter, he exacerbates the increasingly volatile tensions within the Coalition by siding with the Lib Dems.

At the press conference, Balls said that the cash would be used to reverse the Tories' "tax credit bombshell". Famously, it was the Conservatives who deployed the slogan "Labour's tax bombshell" with such lethal impact in the 1992 election. After that era-defining defeat, Brown as shadow chancellor stole the Tories' language and turned it on them, repeatedly highlighting the "Tory tax rises". Balls does the same now.

On their support for keeping the top rate of tax for high earners, the two Eds speak out of conviction and expediency. Polls suggest the top rate is popular. But, in a very Brownite way, Osborne has commissioned a review of how much cash the top rate has raised, having already decided on the outcome: he wants to drop it. The two Eds sense that the politics of all this chime more with their convictions than with Osborne's, but – equally Brown-like – they keep their options open for the next election. Balls declared yesterday that no tax rate is "cast in stone". If Osborne scraps the top rate, it is by no means certain that Labour will go into the next election pledged to put it up again.

Of course, that is one of the reasons why the game-playing Chancellor is tempted to strike. Labour is divided over the top rate, with Tony Blair opposed and the former Chancellor Alistair Darling stressing its temporary nature. Privately, Ed Miliband believes it should be permanent, but the private convictions and public acts of a leader seeking to win an election are not necessarily the same.

For now, Miliband and Balls use a few relatively small tax policies to make very big arguments about fairness and growth. Brown did the same in the run-up to 1997 when, in effect, his message was that the economy was falling off a cliff and he planned to offer help for pensioners in the winter.

On one level, we should not be surprised that the Brown rule book is assiduously followed. Balls and Miliband worked for him as Labour won three times, including a landslide five years after the 1992 defeat. Osborne was involved in three traumatic losses for the Conservatives after Brown had outwitted them in the central area of the economy.

But, on another level, the continuing influence of Brown in the key battleground of economic policy-making is mind-blowing. He is so out of fashion, he hardly utters a word in the UK. Miliband and Balls are happy to let it be known that they meet with Tony Blair, a figure still revered in parts of the media. They keep their distance from Brown, fearing that any direct association will be fatal for them. Osborne listens to Blair's memoir on his iPod while regarding Brown and his two protégés as dream opponents.

Yet, without acknowledgement from either side, it is Brown's rulebook that persists. Lacking – for different reasons – their own publicly authentic voices, David Cameron and Ed Miliband copy the style and mannerisms of Blair, but, perhaps because Blair never had a distinct, thought-through economic policy, the election winner is no guide in the thorny, make-or-break area of politics and the economy. Instead, the other co-founder of New Labour, who is never seen nor praised and is widely castigated, continues to hold sway.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Swiss Banking and Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Can you speak German,...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - 6 month FTC - Central London

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An exciting opportunity f...

Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application) - Agile

£215 per day: Ashdown Group: Junior Project Manager (website, web application ...

Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

£27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

Day In a Page

Read Next
IDF soldiers and vehicles in an image provided by campaign group Breaking the Silence  

'Any person you see – shoot to kill': The IDF doctrine which causes the death of innocent Palestinians

Ron Zaidel

If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong

Frankie Boyle
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before