Steve Richards: PM takes moral high ground in battle for Middle England

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Gordon Brown began his speech by arguing that the country faces the biggest choice for a generation at the next election. The assertion framed the arguments that followed. Mr Brown clings to the hope that the terrible polls for Labour are closer to a referendum on the Government. For 50 minutes, he sought to transform the political battle into one between Labour and the Conservatives.

As a result, the speech switched jerkily from a sermon about Labour's values to a tactical briefing about how he planned to mount a comeback over the next six months. At least the jerkiness was authentic. Mr Brown has always been a moral crusader determined to outmanoeuvre political opponents at any available opportunity.

The tactical briefing was more significant than the sermonising in some ways. Returning to a New Labour soundbite from the late 1990s, he insisted he stood for the many and not the few. In case the message did not get through the first time, he spoke of the "hard-working majority" in relation to every policy announcement. Forget about speculation that Mr Brown has opted for a so-called "core vote" strategy in which every word is aimed solely at wooing "traditional" supporters. From the depths of record-breaking unpopularity, Mr Brown seeks to resurrect the fractured New Labour coalition that propelled the party to power in the last three elections one more time.

He made his pitch partly by seeking to place the Tories on the wrong side of every key policy – from their response to the recession to their current stance on Europe – and by claiming the mantle of change. Mischievously he argued that he was not seeking a fourth term, but the first term of a Labour government in what he called this new global age.

Some of the policy arguments did signal genuine change. The most substantial was support for electoral reform for the Commons and the pledge of an early referendum. This is a more concrete proposal than the one made by Tony Blair in 1997 when he promised a referendum without specifying whether he supported a change. Some of the other commitments were imprecise, not least in the timing of their implementation. With little subtlety others were aimed at Middle England, again in New Labour style. Their purpose was to show that while Labour is committed to political change, social justice and a sensible set of economic policies, the Conservatives were more backward-looking and had, as Mr Brown put it, "no heart". In practical terms most of the policies will be pointless if Labour loses the election. Some should have been implemented long ago.

As he made his announcements and juxtaposed them with the approach of the Conservatives, the speech became formulaic, closer to a list in which "Labour values, policy announcement, contrast with the Tories, for the many and not the few" became a too-familiar sequence. The tactical briefing ran out of steam some time before the end of the speech.

It began before Mr Brown appeared on the stage when, for the second year running, his wife, Sarah, emerged to introduce him. Mr Brown does not like the personal emoting that seems to be the current fashion in politics. Wisely, he did not try to insert too many contrived personal passages in his speech. He would not have been able to pull them off. Sarah, evidently, is the way in which Labour will seek to humanise the public face of the more buttoned-up Gordon. She joked that he is messy and gets up too early and goes to bed too late, leaving him clear to deal with the more serious matters, which is publicly all he feels comfortable talking about.

The style of the sermonising sections of the speech was dated, but the arguments were strong. Unusually, although by no means for the first time, Mr Brown tried to place the economic crisis in an ideological context. He described the belief that markets never failed and always self-corrected as a bankrupt ideology. He argued instead that markets needed morals and put forward a defence of government activity, which has been a theme of the week. His declaration that "too much government indifference can leave people powerless" echoes the speeches made by Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson.

Mr Brown's address was not a "game changer" – one that changes politics in a dramatic fashion. I doubt that it will have the same immediate impact that his speech had last year when he declared that it was no time for a novice.

The text is more significant as a guide to how he, Peter Mandelson and a few others plan to mount a fightback over the next six months. Labour's fate will be determined by the strategy outlined in the speech, and not by the speech itself.

Brown’s policy schedule... and what it means

IDENTITY CARDS

Announcement: British citizens will not be forced to register for national identity cards.

Verdict: Home Secretary Alan Johnson has already announced this concession. But people will still be added to the ID database when they get a new passport.

ELECTORAL REFORM

Announcement: Referendum on whether voters want a proportional system.

Verdict: The Cabinet has been moving in this direction. Mr Brown is attempting to cast the Tories as defenders of the status quo.

MPs' BEHAVIOUR

Announcement: Those guilty of "financial corruption" could have to face a by-election.

Verdict: Gordon Brown foreshadowed this move in an article for The Independent in May. There could be practical and legal problems.

YOUNG MUMS' HOSTELS

Announcement: 16 and 17-year-old parents would be placed in "supervised homes" to bring up their children.

Verdict: First mooted more than 10 years ago. Only £30m is being allocated over three years initially.

CHILDCARE

Announcement: Free childcare for 250,000 two-year-olds by the year 2015.

Verdict: Less ambitious than plans outlined last year. Would be paid for by scaling back childcare tax reliefs.

CANCER CARE

Announcement: Suspected cancer patients will be tested and get their results within a week of being referred.

Verdict: Supposedly to be funded by £1bn of savings in hospital-building programme. Will not come fully into force until 2015.

BINGE DRINKING

Announcement: Councils will get the power to ban 24-hour drinking.

Verdict: Only town halls can currently close down specific pubs and clubs. The Government's first admission that licensing reform has encouraged binge drinking.

CUTTING DEBT

Announcement: Alistair Darling's promise to halve national deficit in the next four years will be enshrined in law.

Verdict: The first time a government has ever taken such a step. Critics protest it is a gimmick.

SOCIAL CARE

Announcement: Free care at home for all elderly people judged to have "high needs", abolishing the means-testing faced by 350,000 people.

Verdict: Populist new policy. The £400m-a-year bill will largely be met by cuts in spending on IT, advertising, marketing and consultancy.

Nigel Morris

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