Can Gordon Brown make a comeback?

11:01 am - December 26th 2007

by Sunder Katwala    

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[This article is a prelude to the Fabian Society’s ‘Fabian Review’ new year editorial, published on January 3rd. It was previewed in Sunday’s Observer.]

Whose has been the greatest political fightback of all time? The championship bout of our times would be between John ‘Soapbox’ Major, who won an unwinnable election in 1992, and Bill ‘Comeback Kid’ Clinton, reduced to lame duck status by Newt Gingrich’s revolution just two years into his Presidency.

While Harold Macmillan’s ability to turn the Suez debacle into a Tory landslide has many contemporary parallels, the all-time champion of champions has to be Harry Truman, able to brandish the famous headlines ‘Dewey defeats Truman’ after his surprise Presidential victory sixty years ago.

After Gordon Brown’s Autumn horribilis, it may be little Christmas consolation to think that others have dug themselves out of considerably larger holes than he finds himself in. Labour has been buffeted by events ever since a hubristic party conference.

The result is that the Conservatives are now favourites to win the next general election. That, of course, is the threat to Brown. The fightback strategy he needs depends on realizing how he could yet turn it into his opportunity too.

As I argue in an editorial in the Fabian Review new year issue. Like Harry Truman, embracing the status of the underdog could be the key to political recovery.

“Who will govern?’ is an open question again as it has not been for well over a decade. It is fifteen years since the voters went to the polls without knowing who would win. Britain’s political cycle has been in a state of suspended animation ever since the Autumn 1992 ERM crisis, which turned the Tory reputation under Thatcher – ‘ruthless but competent’ – into the far from compelling – ‘nasty and incompetent too’.

Blair and Brown took full advantage, redefining the centre-ground by proving that spending more on public services could be combined with a strong economy. But the Conservative Party lost with the same campaign three times before showing any interest in learning the lessons.

By 2005, Michael Howard saved an unpopular Labour government by personifying a Conservative Party which still had not changed. We had the strange spectacle of the governing party spending millions in the campaign trying to persuade sceptical voters that their opponents really could win.

Labour can throw that campaign playbook away. The possibility of a Conservative government is a real one. Still, the opposition’s lead in the polls remains much closer to those achieved by Neil Kinnock in 1986 and 1991 than those of Tony Blair before 1997. Given that political memories are short – and that there was plenty of panic over short-term poll blips like the fuel crisis – it remains to be seen whether the party can keep its head if behind for a sustained period.

David Cameron’s Conservatives have yet to face the the scrutiny a would-be government in waiting must expect. The agenda of ‘social responsibility’ often serves as a device to avoid saying what choices the government itself would make.

He faces growing pressure to renegotiate the basis of Britain’s membership of the European Union. A generational shift has seen the Eurosceptics win the Tory civil war of the 1990s, by mobilising at grassroots level to select candidates. The internal division now is between those who explicitly say Britain would be ‘better off out’ and those who argue that the UK can stay in by agreeing some looser form of membership than the 26 other full EU members. Yet this could present a serious risk to the UK economy, and Cameron’s quiet strategy of seeking to ensure his party is coalitionable with Nick Clegg’s Europhile LibDems.

The leader faces growing calls to ditch his and George Osborne’s tactical decision to sign up to Labour’s spending plans – which means running on a platform of state spending at 45% of GDP. Nobody, even in this new would-be progressive party,believes in that but, after two elections fought on ‘investment versus cuts’, they fear the electoral consequences of saying so.

But Gordon Brown will need a different strategy to that of the last six months if he is to regaun the political initiaive in 2008. His first few months in office saw an attempt to rise, as Prime Minister, above party politics. But one of the problems of a decade-old government is that Ministers too often think, speak and appear as the administrators of the new status quo. Brown now must lead a government and party which thinks politically.

Brown can only see off growing calls of ‘time for change’ by making a clear public argument for what a Labour government would do which a Conservative government would not.

Reuniting Labour’s electoral coalition will not be easy. Over the next two years, broad progressive opinion in Britain must decide whether it has a significant stake in re-electing a Labour government or not. At the moment, many people would say that they do not. The liberal-left have not faced that issue for most of the last decade. Labour in power has been the fact – and campaigning energy has gone into what they got wrong.

There are many policy disagreements. But the question mark goes deeper. For many, it is about whether the government is committed to key progressive causes – whether inequality, the environment and civil liberties – or is agnostic or activtely hostile.

Answering that question demands a new and more pluralist style of politics, more open to challenge, constructive debate and disagreement. The approach taken to constitutional reform is promising; that on terrorism and civil liberties less so. It is difficult to find anybody outside of government who has been convinced of the argument for extending detention without trial to 42 days, is less so.

It is a question which can be answered by a powerful progressive manifesto. At the heart of this should be concrete action on ending child poverty and narrowing the gap in education. But a new democracy settlement, including a written constitution, Lords
reform and a clean break on party funding must show that the message about the need for change has got through.

If opposition politicians and commentators want to make Gordon Brown the underdog in this election, they could be making a dangerous mistake. But perhaps, like Harry Truman, Brown should relish the mantle and make it the key to the political fightback that Labour needs.

Sunder Katwala is General Secretary of the Fabian Society.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Debates ,Labour party ,Lib-left future ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. Innocent Abroad

Well done, Sunder, for not mentioning Labour’s record on tax (up for the lower-paid, down for the rich), ID cards and 3,000 new crimes, increase in inequality, lost personal data, obsession with targets rather than actual service delivery – and in consequence the fact that in many marginal seats a couple of dozen Labour activists will be opposing a couple of hundred Tory volunteers…

Labour set out to govern from the centre-right and has done so: the Tories may yet slash and burn public services from the NHS to the BBC, but who’s to say that a fourth-term Labour government wouldn’t do so as well?

In these circumstances the question isn’t about fantasies of a “powerful progressive manifesto” (no party having served three terms in office can plausibly repudiate its record in that way) but whether there is any point to Labour at all.

In 1983, Labour lost 120 parliamentary seats – it’s on course to lose more than that next time. Its “next generation” have no new ideas, let alone any idea about how and where to build an anti-Tory consensus. Not the least of the problems is that what little effective action a national government can take against global warming (and the possibility that the Gulf Stream may switch off, giving us a Siberian climate – or, rather, those of us not made homeless by flooding) will be massively electorally unpopular. Not the least of the problems is that the British economy is based on speculation not production – whether in house prices or City shenanigans. Not the least of the problems is the ageing electorate, older people being more receptive to the (rightist) narrative of fear rather than the (leftist) narrative of hope.

The Labour Party was created as a means to an end. One crucial part of that end, the moral and practical validity of collective action, whether you call it solidarity, fraternity or just plain civic consciousness, has frayed beyond repair since the 1970s. This government has cared not a whit for it – Blair and Brown have no doubt that public services are better contracted out to businessmen who may or may not be rascals than to not-for-profit co-operatives, for example. You can sweet-talk them into signing cheques a lot more easily than you can pass motions to divert co-op surpluses into a political party’s coffers.

Neither Labour nor the Tories deserve to win the next election – but someone’s got to, and Cameron can probably hardly believe his luck. Indeed, if he’s got any sense, he won’t produce a manifesto of the traditional type, just a list of (more or less woolly) philosophical bullet-points and a promise to govern in accordance with them, and he’ll still come out of it with 350+ MPs. And then Labour’s inquest will display the grisly expanse of its intellectual and moral exhaustion for all to see.

Hard to disagree with InnocentAbroad.

Cameron’s PR tactics (don’t know about his policies) are based around saying “We’re not that different to them, just new and fresh. Don’t be afraid, you can vote for us, we’re not bumbling like this old and staid government.”

Whilst I would assess it likely that a Tory government will concentrate on doing further damage to the ability of the British economy to compete in the modern knowledge economy, as the opposition they have the advantage of being fuzzier about their intentions.

As such, the long years of centre-right attitudes from Blair and Brown mean there is little to distinguish between the elements of Cameron’s policies that he chooses to highlight and various parts of the NuLab record. Hence, there is no differentiation and nowhere for Labour to go at the next election.

3. douglas clark


I expect that that is where triangulation eventually takes us. No difference of substance, only differences of personality.

I’d have thought that Sunder Katwala made the best case possible for trying to open out a genuine ‘difference’. Unfortunately, Brown is a believer in sitting squat on the middle ground, which leads to inane stuff like extending detention, ’cause it plays right, rather than having intrinsic merit. Or ID cards. Etc, etc.

Politicians are now defined by, perhaps their competence, but certainly not their vision. If Brown has a vision, now would be a good time to share it.

Brown has a rather large timescale to achieve a comeback, something his ministers and close aids will keep telling themselves. However Cameron will only see that as more time to strip Brown of the remaining middle class and centrist votes.

As a spectator I could advise two strategies to stage a comeback. The first would be to utilise the unity of his party. The defeaning silence of the Labour party during Brown’s poll slump contrasts highly to Cameron’s party pulling him apart over the summer when he himself slumped in polls. Brown has an option of turning the tables on issues such as Europe and watching as the Conservatives self implode.

The second strategy is challenging Cameron on issues and force him to make commitments rather than criticising such as beaurocracy and “social responsibilty”. Which jobs and regulations would Cameron cut? Isn’t social responsibility just an excuse for government to do nothing i.e Hooverism? Brown must make somekind of argument against what he is proposing and where he can make some concessions on beaurocracy.

It looks pretty bleak right now but it did when Tony Blair left and Gordon Brown took over. What matters is that Gordon Brown reminds people why they voted for Labour in the last 3 elections and crucially gets back on message. Tony Blair was very good at reminding floating voters of what Labour stood for, something that Gordon Brown has not.
He needs to share his vision with the country which includes more than out of hours at GP’s clinics, 56 day detention and a constitution for the NHS. How will he deal with global warming? How will he deal with child poverty? How will he move past government hand outs to make the public services more efficient?

Good luck Gordon

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