Steve Richards: The more we know about Gordon Brown, the more New Labour he appears to be

He cannot say too much now about his future plans or there will be no surprise when he implements them
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The Independent Online

For once the political road ahead is clear. Part of the fun in politics is predicting what will happen next, seeking ways to see through the thick fog. At the start of this year there is not even much of a mist. Blair is going. Brown will take over. That part of the story, "The Succession", is almost over.

Probably the transition will be a relatively calm climax to the turbulent narrative that has dominated British politics for years. Some extreme Blairites stir uneasily, but on the whole reason appears to have prevailed over madness. Brown is the strongest candidate by a wide margin. Most of the pivotal players have come to recognise this.

The lack of other formidable candidates is a weakness for a party that has ruled for a decade. The absence arises from the overwhelming dominance of the duo that has run Labour since 1994. No one else has sought or dared to breathe for very long. Potential candidates come and go while Brown stays in place like a rock.

The latest, John Reid, is in the latter part of the alternative sequence. He has come and now he is going, at least in terms of a credible bid. His speech last week, in which he tried once more to create a false divide between Brown and New Labour, was received with tired despair even by some of Blair's admirers. If Brown succeeds to the Prime Ministerial throne without a contest there will be much criticism from opponents and others. Indeed the former minister, Steve Byers, put the case against a coronation in a newspaper article yesterday.

Byers highlighted the thorny problems he hoped would be addressed in a contest without stating what his solutions would be to any of them. It is easier to call for a contest than to take part in one. Still Byers is not alone in the Labour party in arguing that a contest would be healthy in itself.

I wonder. Neil Kinnock pointed out recently, that in the 1980s Labour regarded leadership contests as a healing process. Kinnock noted that: "We nearly bloody healed ourselves to death". If there were big titans in the Cabinet with different ideas about how to renew a jaded government there would and should be a contest. There are no titans.

Anyway, contests tend to obscure debate rather than highlight fresh ideas. Candidates say what they think they need to say in order to win. This is far removed from a noble form of renewal. A much bigger test for Labour is whether it can become again the party of fresh ideas firmly rooted in social democratic values. The test for Brown is to show a willingness to respond to some of those ideas, even those which are not his own.

In this context Brown's television interview at the weekend was more important than it seemed. I have spoken to several people who gave up on it before the end. There is something about the intensely rehearsed phrasing and point-making that can be disengaging. To take one example, Brown did not want to appear arrogant about his future prospects so he qualified his comments several times by saying: "If I am in a new position this year."

The phrase sounded oddly disconnected as if he was reflecting on switching from Ashtanga yoga to Pilates. Blair had the knack of making cautious statements in interviews seem engagingly conversational and part of a bold moral crusade. Brown is a more ambitious politician but can appear awkwardly evasive.

Partly this is because he has a lot to be evasive about. Brown is in the weird position of being liberated from worrying about the timing of the succession, but is now trapped by other considerations. He cannot say too much now about his future plans or there will be no surprise when he implements them. He needs also to take into account the fact that Blair is still at the helm. Most constraining of all, the eve of acquiring the top job is not a period to risk alienating Labour voters or the wider electorate. With one bound Brown is free only to be trapped once more.

Within these new constraints Brown laid out a substantial agenda in his interview. It is a myth that no one knows what a Brown premiership would be like. Much more is known about him compared with John Major at the point when Major moved into Downing Street.

Brown confirmed that education would get a higher share of national income and repeated his aspiration to spend as much on state pupils as the levels currently enjoyed by those that go to private schools. Aspirations are politically safe but he has repeated this one so many times now that the course has been set. At least persistent repetition raises the prospect of smaller class sizes and more individual tuition, the services offered in the affluent private schools.

While the private schools function in the current one- sided context, sheltered from the pressures faced by inner-city state schools, the cabinet minister Ruth Kelly made an understandable move in sending one of her kids to one. But it would be a revolutionary development if state schools were as pampered in terms of resources so she felt no need to do so.

In the same interview Brown also repeated that he would lead a ministry of all the talents. He is not daft enough to appoint an entire cabinet of Brownites. But he meant more than that. He said that he wanted to involve some from outside the Labour party as well. Brown was struck by the impact of the non-partisan Make Poverty History campaign. He has been known to observe that if he addressed one of their meetings a huge hall would be packed. If he spoke to a Labour party meeting on the same issue attendance would be thinner.

Brown knows he seeks to lead at a time when political parties are in decline. When he refers to a ministry of all the talents he means partly the involvement of figures from pressure groups such as Make Poverty History, business leaders, powerful media figures and many more besides.

The recent anthology of his speeches was endorsed by a series of non- partisan superstars, from Alan Greenspan to Nelson Mandela. Expect them and others to play small parts in the ministry of all the talents. More rooted in Labour than Blair, Brown plans to go well beyond party for inspiration, guidance and of course by implication to acquire the glow of heavyweight endorsement.

Brown's focus on education, the fresh look at the role of the state, the attempt to build a wide coalition of support, the stress on new challenges are all characteristics of New Labour from its conception. Brown is the new Labour candidate in the leadership contest. If others challenge him it will be from the left of new Labour or from much further to the right.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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