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

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:21

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.

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