Why Brown is doomed

12 May 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK): On Friday after the local election results and before London had been announced I wrote an analysis of why Gordon Brown could not lead his party to a recovery (First thoughts on Labour's Debacle). Contemplating the ruins now after a sunny weekend in Dorset both a deeper analysis and superficial gossip confirm the diagnosis.

The fact of Brown's character is not so important. Frank Field reports that he gets in rages. Can you imagine being a thoughtful, independent minded person trying to work with Tony Blair and not getting into a weekly rage?

The most interesting stab at analysis I saw was Peter Mandelson on 'Hard Talk'. His advise was that Brown had to continue as New Labour - the sure formula of success. In this he was wrong. But wrong in an interesting way. Especially because he defined New labour in a concise and revealing fashion.

The crucial wrongness is that the electorate have rejected Tony Blair and New Labour. it is a point that I and many others have made. Even if it is usually ignored Labour did very badly in the 1995 election. Even with the Tories under Michael Howard and the Lib-Dems under the influence, less than 20,000 votes separated it from a hung parliament, Labour lost outright in England overall, and scored record lows in proportions of vote cast and of the electorate as a whole. This after an unbroken record of economic growth!

It became clear to Blair and his advisors that he could not win on his record as PM which is why Brown was brought back. Without him Blair would have lost outright. Equally, had Blair carried on as PM to this day he would be at least as unpopular as Brown is now. What has happened isn't just personal - although, of course, as has to be the case in the media age it is personified. It is political. New Labour is over.

New Labour, that is, as a phase in the leadership of the UK's main left-of-centre party. Mandelson defined New Labour as being four things:

1. Running the economy in a stable and effective fashion
2. Saving public services, education and health, from total middle-class flight
3. Helping "the poor"
4 Embracing globalisation

There was nothing about "restoring trust", renewing democracy, being part of Europe or trailing after the United States or intervening to protect human rights (or save the world from terrorism).

I think it is very important at a moment when everyone is dumping on Labour to assess what was achieved after 1997. Mandleson's four-fold combination reversed the inner Americanisation of the UK. The public sector was saved - from the fate it would have suffered under another 5 years of Major, the 'poor' were helped. The depth of New Labour's achievement of, in effect, saving the welfare state in Britain, can be measured by Cameron's embrace of it and insistence on the importance of society; his return - if you will - to the core post-war values of one-nation conservatism.

However this conservative modernisation of Britain, reversing Thatcherism while preserving her destruction of the trade union movement was always presented, specially by Blair, as a bright NEW dawn, a way forward (into the future - where else). The country, being energetic and impatient, desired this and decided it had been conned. Blair proclaimed his commitment to rights-based liberal internationalism and then uncritically backed Bush's Guantanamo warmongering. Blair oversaw the most radical constitutional changes for over a century, dismantling the unified state yet scorned their importance as he exploited a power now unchecked by informal norms. Blair hailed the wealth of globalisation leaving most people feeling vulnerable and powerless as he drained the Labour movement of its core attachment to fairness (not addressed by the patronage of redistribution from above).

In this way even while the administration of policy was progressive the spirit of reform was eviscerated and democracy shafted. Once the electorate were satisfied that the Tories were not going to return to being the 'nasty' party there was no future prospect at the heart of New Labour.

Brown's tragedy, for those who knew his grasp of affairs, is that perhaps alone among the Labour leadership he understood the broad system failure taking place and the need for his party to embrace a democratic strategy that was different from and more thn New Labour. This is why he launched his premiership with his Green paper. By calling for change he presented himself as the answer not the problem.

I do not see how a national conversation on Britishness or a new draft Bill of Rights can now redress the situation. He had once chance to be "the change" as he called it. He won't get another.

PS: Andrew Grice in Tuesday's Independent concludes his report with this succinct para:

Time is running short. "If we don't stabilise this very quickly, we
are fucked," said another minister. As he is one of Mr Brown's closest
friends, you can imagine what his enemies are saying.


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