Steve Richards: There is still time for Gordon Brown to save the day – if he can learn to trust his instincts

He should state more clearly what drives him, and implement the policies he cares about

Share
Related Topics

Is there anything Gordon Brown can do to escape from his political nightmare, especially as the crisis is even deeper than it seems?

The decline of new Labour did not begin last week. Around the country there was already a firmly embedded anti-Labour mood, almost as strong as in the 1980s. Last year, Scotland turned away from Labour electing a minority SNP administration. Two years ago, defeated Labour councillors in London and the South East were reporting that the anti-Tory mood had gone. Instead, voters manoeuvred to get Labour out. Last week, there were further similar manoeuvrings.

The Liberal Democrats performed fairly well in the north of England where Labour was their main opponent. They suffered in the South against the Conservatives. In Wales the non-Labour parties flourished. In London voters kicked out Ken Livingstone as Mayor.

In the 1980s there never was a great Thatcherite hegemony. But the fear of Labour was a more potent dynamic than any other. Now in an entirely different set of circumstances, the dynamic is back, fuelled by anger and, in some cases, hatred against the Government.

The new Labour coalition was always fragile. At first, the big tent was crammed full of admirers with contradictory opinions and aspirations. They were united only by a fear and hatred of the Tories as the 1980s tide moved into reverse. On this, at least, Tony Blair and Mr Brown were agreed. They were determined always to keep the tent full. It was Mr Brown who coined the phrase "the entire country is our core constituency" even though Mr Blair was the first to utter the words in public.

In the early years, a strong economy and the willingness of the Conservatives to fall into every trap by moving further to the right meant the contradictory campers opted to stay in the crammed tent. Those who recognised public services needed much more investment lay willingly on the canvas floor with those who regarded expenditure as a reckless waste. Pro-Europeans raised a glass with rabid Euro-sceptics. Sensing the buoyant public mood, the media danced to New Labour's tunes as well. In the autumn of 1997, the Government made more cock-ups than it has recently, from announcing it was not joining the euro in a Westminster pub to taking money away from single parents. The media declared almost universally that the Government was a triumph. It was part of the big tent.

This was never going to last. The 2001 election was a subdued affair, with the campers on the left and right having their doubts. The war in Iraq caused a major fracture of the new Labour coalition. Another underestimated moment was when David Cameron supported Mr Blair's education reforms. Iraq was Mr Blair's defining policy in the second term. His public service reforms were the defining policy of his third. Both were supported enthusiastically by the Conservatives. No wonder Labour has an identity crisis, at least as big as the one that confronted the Conservatives after the departure of Margaret Thatcher.

Mr Brown's recent miscalculations are only one element in the current equation. They add to Labour's woes in a single particular way. He is no longer in a position to repeat John Major's brilliant, and still underestimated, performance as Prime Minister between 1990 to the election in 1992, when Mr Major appeared to personify change and continuity after Mrs Thatcher.

At first, Mr Brown looked as if he was going to pull off the same feat, but the non-election fiasco put an end to that. As far as Labour is concerned, this is the only argument for a change of leader. A new figure would briefly have the space to represent a fresh start. But the arguments against a contest are much stronger. Regular leadership contests often become part of a party's problem rather than a solution. Look at the Conservatives after 1997 or the Liberal Democrats since 2005.

The causes of Labour's crisis are a combination of the immediate and more distant. Yet I do not accept it is doomed to lose the next election. That is partly because politics is not a science where, on the basis of the past, predictions can be made about the future. This is not 1995. Mr Cameron is not Mr Blair. Labour's crisis is not the same as the one that nearly destroyed the Conservatives then.

So what, if anything, can Brown do to avoid a 1997 landslide in reverse? Currently, a fatal narrative is in place. It can be summarised in three words: "Brown is a disaster". If he made a speech on his "vision" in this climate, he would be slaughtered even if it were a work of genius. Perhaps it will prove impossible to change the narrative, but at the very least he needs to address quickly the self-inflicted wounds, such as the ongoing concerns about the abolition of the 10p tax rate. Then if there is a period when crises are not whirling around him, he might have the chance to be heard with at least a degree of respect.

At that point, he should state more clearly what drives him as a leader. Mr Brown chooses not to speak directly because he is worried about offending parts of New Labour's big tent. At least he should realise now there is virtually no one left in the tent. There are no risks any longer of speaking his mind and dropping the deliberately oblique language.

In recent days, a close ministerial colleague has advised him to use the next two years to implement the policies he cares about: he might well be out of power in two years, so why not go for it?

The advice is subtler than it seems. The minister was making the point that, in being less cautious, Mr Brown might discover the progressive consensus that he once talked about, instead of seeking to be a one-nation Prime Minister when the nation has turned away. That is good advice. Another minister, Douglas Alexander, made the important point on the BBC yesterday that politics is a choice, that the parties are not the same. So let's see fewer blurring of the choices.

Instead of affecting to be what he is not, Mr Brown should become what he really is, a deep-thinking and ferociously adversarial politician. Privately he tells friends that he is wary of going for Mr Cameron and the Conservatives with wit and fervour because it would not look prime ministerial. As he is in danger of not being Prime Minister, he needs to worry less about what is or is not prime ministerial.

The Conservatives are not ready for power, at least at this mid-term point in the electoral cycle. The cabinet is more or less united and not full of ministers scheming malevolently for the top job.

There are parts of the economy that are still doing pretty well. More than in 1997, the external circumstances, from the banking crisis to the newly fashionable concerns for poverty, require a responsive state and not a smaller one. These are the reasons why it is not over yet for Labour, but unless Brown can leap from the politics of the 1990s to those of today it will be over very soon.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker