Does Gordon need a Big Vision?

9:42 am - November 7th 2007

by Paul Linford    

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I’ve already given my initial reaction to yesterday’s Queen’s Speech on my own blog, pointing out that while there are some very good things in the package from a progressive or liberal-left point of view, politically the whole thing suffers from the lack of a single “Big Idea” or connecting narrative which would enable Gordon Brown to regain the initiative he lost by not calling an election.

I’m not about to depart from that view. While ideas like giving all parents the right to request flexible working hours are extremely welcome, it is not the kind of thing that is going to stuff the Tories, particularly when they are claiming they thought of it first. By contrast scrapping ID cards, or announcing a Speaker’s Conference on proportional representation, or even bringing in fixed-term four-year Parliaments to ensure no repeat of this autumn’s non-election debacle, would have done.

However Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian has a slightly different take on it. While acknowledging that Brown effectively stitched himself up by promising to set out his “vision” when he made his election announcement, he argues that in fact it was the wrong word, and that what Brown can really offer the nation is a programme – “something less than a grand vision but more inspiring than a mere to-do list.”

Is he right? Does Brown need a new over-arching vision or narrative to renew Labour in office, or is the country sick of all that kind of stuff after ten years of Blair? I’m not going to attempt to answer this question, but I think it will provide a good talking point for this blog!

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About the author
Paul Linford is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a digital publishing manager and former Parliamentary Lobby journalist where he was political editor of the Newcastle Journal for seven years. He has an 18-year career in newspaper journalism and lives in Belper, Derbyshire, with his wife and two children. A committed Christian, his faith informs his own belief in progressive politics and the view that a society must always be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. His eponymous blog combines a mixture of the personal and the political and has become particularly renowned for its commentaries on liberal-left politics. He is also a leading voice in support of an English Parliament and other democratic reforms. Also at: Paul Linford blog
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Personally when I hear the ‘vision thing’ I reach for my liberties because the ‘vision’ usually has something to do with making the country what Oakeshott called an ‘enterprise association’, rather than a ‘civil association’. With Gordon even a consistent *theme* might be welcome but as it is we have stuff about giving power back to ‘people and parliament’ and at the same time plans to force 16-18 year olds to stay on at school.

A “vision” is often a way of distracting attention from what you’re really doing – or not doing. However, an impressive “to do” list that lacks a coherent, unifying, philosophical theme is often one that lacks internal consistency and invites attack on those grounds. It’s also one whose virtues may go unappreciated.

I more worried about his stated vision of “British jobs for British workers”. What kind of illiberal appeal to the most base instincts of the white working classes does that present.

Also yet another anti-terror bill, how many terror bills does he need to get it right? Hundreds of overwhelmingly brown-skinned young men have been unjustly detained without any resulting charges. Now the PM wants to increase the length of the detention period?

ID cards – are they still part of his vision?

The connecting narrative is clearly authoritarian and illiberal.

Liberals need to tackle the exponents of darkness that huddle in our ranks.

Brown’s British Jobs 4 British Workers.

Lord Carlile’s support for extending 28 to 56 days.

These views are simply unacceptable from representatives of the labour or liberal Democrat parties.

But both Labour and Lib Dem parties seem to have lost sight of the principles on which they were founded. The drive for election and office has corrupted their principles. Yes there can be compromise on some issues but not these principles of rascism and liberty.

5. gordons gofer

I don’t think Gordon Brown would class himself as a liberal, except maybe on moral issues like abortion, gay rights etc etc.

I hate the British jobs ofr British workers not becasue its illberal?? but becuase it hints at racism and is simply impossibel to deiliver, it was a soundbite and a piss poor one at that.

I think GB’s government does need a big theme, i would go with something to do with building….. start from houses and work up.

I couldn’t care less if he has a vision.
I want him to dump ID cards, bring in PR, do something towards the environment besides putting two fingers up at it, get out of Iraq and educate people about the EU ex-constitution.
That’d be vision enough. Unfortunately, I suspect most of it would get him fired.

How about “mandate _before_ action”, not good to get it the other way round.

8. AlisdairCameron

What about a big idea comprising solely of competent management, without grandstanding, without ludicrous, unworkable, scarily expensive and illiberal ‘grands projets’ (from ID cards to the Olympics).
I wager that low-key competence is what the bulk of the population want nowadays, not being pushed hither and thither as part of some grandiose ‘narrative’ (whose authors haven’t worked out the ending), but that goes against
a) the penchant career politicians have for imposing their personality upon the country and leaving some legacy/blight (delete as applicable) ,
b) the dreadful cult of managerialism (as promoted for great profit by the likes of Mckinseys et al), and favoured by policy wonks:Public services have become a test-bed for unproven policy-wonk or management consultancy theories, with many ruinous initiatives falling apart at the seams, while the poor bloody ‘user’ and clinician/teacher try to muddle through as best they can with a constantly moving set of goalposts. Further overlooked are unintended consequences of trying ideologically-derived (i.e. NOT evidence-based) policies-we’re seeing much healthcare now ‘redefined’ as social care, hitting local councils so that council tax becomes a surrogate health tax, for instance.Managerialism and micro-management to an overarching grand scheme is a virus which destroys individuality with a blizzard on initiatives which must be adhered to,and does not allow outliers, but it is from those outliers, those mavericks, those oddballs that innovation is spawned.

I have an article lined up on ‘British jobs for British workers’ – that’s going to be fun.

But more broadly, I do think Brown needs a vision. Hopefully a positive one of course…. but this country is going through some big changes right now. A progressive vision is important, I believe, to have a feeling of where one wants to go and then sell those progressive ideas to the country.

A to-do list is just more positioning!

Also, it’s funny that given Cameron’s initial promise to avoid “punch and judy politics”, that is precisely what he is partaking in now.

Also, it’s funny that given Cameron’s initial promise to avoid “punch and judy politics”, that is precisely what he is partaking in now.

Was thinking similar; what ever happened to Cameron’s new politics that he derides Brown for abandoning?

‘Vision’ is essential. The problem is when politicians use the term they tend to mean something incredibly simplistic and banal. Visions can’t always be encapsulated in sound bites…

It’s just breathtaking isn’t it?
I wish a giant Plasma screen falls down in the house of commons during the next PMQ’s and runs a video of Cameron in his first appearance talking so seriously about doing away with the era of ‘Punch and Judy politics’
what a cheeky hypocrite!

Visions are off the agenda for two reasons: 1) The Government won’t have any money to fund one next year. We’re in for a pretty severe economic downturn (as bank profit horror-stories will demonstrate later this month) with growth probably at the bottom or below the scale outlined by Alistair Darling in his PBR. 2) Voter’s don’t want a vision – it’s politicking, and the yo-yoing of the polls demonstrates that beyond measures that direclty affect their pockets they don’t have any strong attachment to a particular party anymore.

Vision manufacturing businesses (insert name of think-tank here) would do well to remember that last point. It is no longer about the banner under which a policy is advertised, but the impact that policy may have on the individual’s well-being (and people define that in different ways).

Sunny, you said that this country is going through some big changes right now. I’d like to know what you really mean by that, because genuinely ‘big changes’ take time to happen and time to have an impact. Just go back to the 1960s, a supposedly radical decade in which there was massive social change. Most historians will now tell you that it was nothing of the sort for the majority of people.

I’m not at all sure Brown needs a big idea. His reputation was established on nothing more than playing a straight bat at the Treasury, and his initial dedication to the same approach did him no harm at all. The moment he listened to those dismal Siren voices (Alexander and Balls, for example) and started politicking is the moment his Crown began to slip.

Visions are not how you get a job done. All they are is a mechanism for helping people indetify with what you’re already committed to.

Lord Carlile does not support extension for detentin without ttrial, he said it is a matter for parliament to decide and outlined some of the specific instances in which the current practice would be tested.

As for Gordon Brown, I doubt he will want to outline any specifics for where he wants to get to, as he seems highly sensitive to any form of criticism and is trying to rise above the petty politicking of hole-picking and full-frontal assaults that goes with presenting any vision.

Anyway I’m sure he is furiously avoiding the characterisations of the cartoonists by skirting around words that have uncomfortable connotations for the one-eyed.

Sunny, you said that this country is going through some big changes right now. I’d like to know what you really mean by that, because genuinely ‘big changes’ take time to happen and time to have an impact

Hi MorrisOx – a good question. I’ll have to answer this in a few days when I try and open the debate on a vision for the future.

Briefly though, in terms of large-scale migration, identity issues, changing global power structures etc require a shift in our thinking I believe. And that includes dealing with terrorism too. Promise, will re-visit the topic soon.

I think the theme and vision should be competence. I am sure I am not the only one who finds Cameron’s swagger nauseating. Perhaps its because he is a posh git, but there is something about him which brings out murderous tendencies…. I think its something relatively easy to puncture but I think it may well be a question of solidity and reliability against the more ephemeral appeal of Cameron.

British jobs for British workers. Well, yes. Or don’t we believe in aiming for full employment any more?

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