Guest editorial: We need to talk about Gordon
If Gordon Brown’s failure as Prime Minister exposes the limitations of the entire New Labour project, this presents a rather more significant challenge to those who supported the New Labour project than to those who opposed it.
The premiership of Gordon Brown was a failure of such enormous proportions and devastating consequence that we in the Labour Party will not win a general election until we understand what went so terribly, terribly wrong. The current Labour Party isn’t doing that. Instead, we’d rather talk about ID cards, Tony Blair, community organising, ‘Refounding Labour’, or short-term stimulus. We talk about anything but the failure of the last Labour Prime Minister.
Of course, since the last government came tumbling down, various survivors and observers have published their views of the Brown years, which have dominated the debate about Gordon Brown’s record. Yet the understandably personal way these analyses have presented Brown, whether as a magnetic pole generating a compulsive power field over his followers or as a volcanic personality unsuited to being Prime Minister, has underestimated how his failure as Prime Minister played out amidst broad political unity amongst Labour’s advocates of centrist social democracy.
This means that the spectacular collapse of this shared framework as a political proposition during Gordon Brown’s premiership is given less attention than it deserves. Rather than any personal failings, Brown failed as Prime Minister because he, in common with the rest of the Labour movement, had not developed a political or governing strategy that could function in the medium term without the ability to offer extra state funding.
Since an inability to promise incremental funding is the political situation we likely find ourselves in for the next decade, the essential political task for the Labour movement is now to develop a social democratic strategy which does not rely on the essential power source of the New Labour period. If Gordon Brown’s failure as Prime Minister exposes the limitations of the entire New Labour project, this presents a rather more significant challenge to those who supported the New Labour project than to those who opposed it.
The task for Labour is not how to reject New Labour, which is dead anyway, but how to build a left-of-centre political mission without the funding cornerstone that made New Labour palatable to the Labour movement and the electorate. This is no small challenge.
I am as guilty as anyone
When making statements about the scale and strength of an electoral rejection, there is usually somewhere a general assertion that, whatever else people might have been doing, the author themselves was virtuously absent from the scene of the disaster. I should therefore declare my own minor league political history. I am three things in my Labour identity. I am a loyalist first, a centrist second, and utterly insignificant third.
As a junior bag-carrier I supported Tony Blair strongly as leader, but felt that if anyone should succeed him Gordon Brown was the natural, right, overwhelming choice. Given this polling and political situation in 2007, I thought the best way to ensure a successful Labour government was to help Gordon Brown lead a strong, united party. Gordon Brown had, after all, been the co-creator of New Labour, but was unusually in a position to renew it without destroying it. So when Tony Blair eventually resigned, I offered my little help to Gordon Brown’s campaign team to work on advance, and for a couple of weeks transported penguin stands emblazoned with ‘Gordon Brown for Britain’ to schools and leisure centres. When Gordon Brown’s team celebrated his victory, I was the one who went to Sainsbury’s in Victoria Street to buy special offer Cava.
I did all this because I thought Gordon would be a successful PM following a broadly New Labour agenda. Later, as his premiership slipped into terminal unpopularity, I supported his retention as leader. I thought the chances of success for a coup were slight and the electoral reward likely infinitesimal.
Most of all, I failed to see what great alternative was being offered. The criticisms of Brown’s personal behaviour were legion, but there was little sign of a coherent policy critique, beyond a demand to go further on marketisation (or ‘choice’, depending on viewpoint) in public services, a position that was unlikely to win great support in any foreseeable contest for the future of the Labour Party.
By the end, I hoped – in a vague way – that Gordon would realise he could not win a general election and therefore make a graceful exit, affording us the hypocritical opportunity to pay him heartfelt tributes as we urgently shuffled someone else to the front of the stage.
What kind of disaster was it?
Since I did my bit to keep him as leader, why do I now state so baldly that Gordon Brown’s three year premiership was a complete failure?
Electorally, the 2010 election was an obvious failure. We suffered our second worst post-war election result. We were destroyed in the South, and suffered awful swings in the Midlands. Among key demographics, we plunged further – with DE voters in particular showing a significant decline in support (1). You can find a detailed version of this assessment in any number of think tank assessments and polling reports (2), but ultimately, they come to the same point. We were annihilated.
All that saved us from a fate similar to Michael Foot was distrust in our principal opponents. As the Conservative strategist Lord Ashcroft argues, Conservative poll leads of 2009 were a result of the public's
dismay at the state of things, we were the only available vehicle for change. They still had no particular reason to expect that things would improve under a Conservative government, other than that they could hardly get any worse. (Ashcroft, 2010a, 109)
Of course, elections aren’t the purpose of politics. Significant achievements can be followed by defeats (Archer, 2011). Indeed, Brown’s stewardship of the banking crisis in Britain and internationally will likely be his great legacy. Sadly, we needed to offer voters more than an economic disaster less appalling than it might have been. In that context, I find it almost impossible to think of a major domestic legislative or political achievement of the Brown government.
What was clearest about the Brown government policy agenda was its tactical, shifting nature. Our governing strategy consisted of a political response to a media problem here, an attempt to assert authority there, all swiftly withdrawn in the face of media pressure. We wanted 42 days detention, then dropped it. We wanted to privatise the Royal Mail, then didn’t. We wanted to offer British jobs for British workers, but didn’t say how we were going to do it. We were opposed to allowing Ghurkhas' residency rights, right up to the moment we gave in. We were for ID cards, but our heart wasn’t really in it.
It’s possible to overstate this case. Dozens of talented people laboured night and day to make a difference, and often succeeded. Yet none of this represented a clear political position, or at least not one that was obvious to observers. Without a broad political direction to work towards, most ministers and advisers got on with delivering sensible, incremental changes. One could point to polyclinics, intervention in industry, and support for high speed rail as successes. Some failed – like Mandelson’s attempt to sell the Royal Mail or the succession of Housing Ministers who struggled to get Eco-towns built before the General Election.
Many such initiatives have been forgotten, or were consumed by the agenda of the next government. To take an example at random, the Children’s Plan was a major, detailed programme for reform, but was swiftly pulled into the sands by the Conservative-led government, with few of its provisions established as part of our national life. The Brown government was Ozymandian both in rhetoric and result.
If we accept that the Brown Premiership was ultimately both an electoral and a governmental failure, we have been offered various conflicting explanations for this sorry state of affairs. All possess a single common feature: that the failure was that of Gordon Brown himself.
By the Labour ‘right’, Brown is cast as either blocking needed reform, or paying insufficient attention to it. By the Labour ‘centre-left’, he is regarded as being cowardly when he should be bold, refusing to act on his social democratic instincts. Both explanations place Brown as the fulcrum – a tortured, conflicted figure whose weaknesses were underlined by public unpopularity. This provides us with an easy explanation for why Labour’s last three years were so painful. It is that a mildly anonymous Cabinet minister was correct to forecast that Gordon Brown would be a ‘f******g disaster as Prime Minister’.
This argument is not without evidence. Gordon Brown’s image was a major issue for voters. Swing voters, for example, put Gordon Brown as the number one reason against Labour (3). However, the case against Gordon alone is not open and shut. Roger Mortimore, of Ipsos-Mori, has pointed out that in many respects Gordon Brown’s ratings in 2010 were superior to those of Tony Blair in 2001 or 2005. Further, in 2010 Brown was rated as better in a crisis, as having a better grasp of British and world problems, and as having more grasp of detail than either David Cameron or Nick Clegg (Mortimore, 2010).
So if we cannot blame Gordon alone, whose fault was it?
The empty critique of Gordon Brown from people I agree with
Politicians and observers have got used to doughty figures of the centre-left going through a peculiar cycle of grief over successive Labour leaders (it goes manic enthusiasm, doubt, dismay, denial, anger, repeat for successor), but when it comes to Gordon Brown, the similar phenomena which exists among what you might call the ‘Blairite’ wing of the Labour Party is of more consequence.
In truth, after 2007 we ‘Blairites sans Blair’ never offered a workable alternative, in policy or political terms, to the overall positioning of Gordon Brown. We just darkly muttered our dismay and called it a critique. For some this took the form of loudly proclaiming ‘I knew it’d be like this’. Those who had privately and publicly warned that Gordon Brown would be a poor Prime Minister have not felt shy about stating the basis for these insights. To take just one example, Jonathan Powell’s New Machiavelli can be read as an unflattering commentary on the career, personal behaviour and political agenda of Gordon Brown (Powell, 2010).
Tony Blair himself makes a slightly different point. In a recent speech, he argued:
From 1997 to 2007 we were New Labour. In June 2007 we stopped. We didn’t become Old Labour exactly. But we lost the driving rhythm that made us different and successful. It was not a government of continuity from 1997 to 2010 pursuing the same politics. It was 10 + 3. (Blair, 2011)
For Blair, the problem with Brown’s premiership is that it failed to continue the reforming path that Blair had set. However, this raises the interesting question of whether there really were only two phases to the New Labour story.
For example, in his biography Tony Blair devotes considerable time to arguing that, in the early part of his premiership, he did not confront major reforms to public services with sufficient rigour, only really doing so after the 2001 election (Blair, 2010). From this you might conclude that New Labour wasn’t so much ‘10+3’ as ‘4+6+3’, thus dividing Labour’s period in office into three parts separated by fiscal policy, not two parts separated by leader.
First came the straightjacket of fiscal rectitude, which did not appear to deliver much of consequence in our public services. Then from around 2000 onwards came the years of Brown’s plenty and Blair’s reforms. Finally, the bust, where both resources and reforms were absent, as all available funds went into keeping the national economy from collapse.
Yes, Gordon Brown was the architect of all three fiscal phases, but the critics of Gordon Brown who use Blair’s tenure as their benchmark need to acknowledge that Tony Blair’s instincts may have been against spending in general, but he was often in favour of spending in particular.
As Steve Richards notes, it was Tony Blair who announced a Labour government would use the proceeds of growth to fund the abolition of child poverty and the transformation of the NHS (Richards, 2010, 136-41). It can be argued that Blair used these spending decisions as a tool to deliver reform, but that only exposes the question further – how would Labour have functioned in government from 2000 onwards without the ability to spend more money?
The high New Labour era was marked by the ability to soothe debates over fundamental purpose with steady expenditure increases. Yes, from 1997 to the 2000 CSR there was a period of fiscal restraint, but this was never going to last in the face of the need improve vital public services (and win elections). In 1998 even Peter Mandelson felt that:
Our promise to keep to the Tories’ financial strictures for our first two years in office had been essential to our credentials as stewards of the economy. But it was also slowing down the pace of change and delaying serious thought about what we would do when the moratorium ended. (Mandelson, 2010, kindle location 3978, my emphasis)
Increased spending from 2000 onwards meant ministers did not have to rob Peter’s Comprehensive to build Paul’s Academy. In the NHS, increased resources meant further private providers could be bought on stream in addition to public providers, and made the process of transition to new structures smoother, not least by generous pay settlements.
Even so, by 2005 one of Labour’s biggest political headaches was heavy NHS Trust deficits, which appeared as the Milburn-Reid era reforms bedded down. Imagine how bad these would have been in the public mind without the extra money that paid for increased staff salaries, and meant few hospitals had to close.
If we focus on how New Labour actually delivered reforms, it becomes clear that both Blair and Brown’s versions of New Labour relied on the proceeds of economic growth to resolve the political tensions within the New Labour project. Whatever the tensions over public sector reform, the underlying political truth was that few variants of such reform were likely to be attractive to the country, or acceptable to the Labour Party, without significant incremental funding. When the funding came, so did the reforms.
Under Blair, Gordon was able to apply the salve, but it was his misfortune to enter Number Ten when there was nothing left in the tube. Blair, of course, began to see the nature of this problem by around 2005, and his acolytes now rightly point out he was hungry to limit the growth of the state and of the deficit. The problem with this is twofold. First, Blair was never going to win that argument. The political calculus of the Labour Party is weighted towards spending more money, except in times of exceptional crisis. A Prime Minister who argues for fiscal restraint while enacting painful public sector reforms is rarely going to take the Labour Party with him. Second, Blair relied on the money the boom generated as much as his Chancellor. As we’ve seen, it was Blair, not Brown, who pledged to raise NHS spending to European levels. It was Blair, not Brown, who pledged to abolish child poverty. A focus on the money helps explain why, whatever their doubts about Gordon Brown’s personal abilities, the Labour ‘right’ always ultimately decided to make an accommodation with Gordon’s chancellorship and, later, leadership.
In the years of plenty, Gordon Brown represented the growth that funded the reforms sought by the ‘Blairites’. In the lean years, even the most ultra of ultras could see that market-based reforms had lost their political appeal, at least within the internal electorate of the Labour Party. This also helps explain why the various ‘Blairite’ discussions over dislodging Brown took place in a miniscule political space. When David Miliband popped his head above the parapet in July 2008, it was to propose that:
we need the imagination to distribute more power and control to citizens over the education, healthcare and social services they receive. So is the challenge to society – to build a genuine sense of belonging and responsibility on the back of greater protection from outside risks and greater control of local issues.(Miliband, 2008)
This could have come straight from a Gordon Brown speech.
Outside the cabinet, dissent tended to focus on the need for a ‘debate’ or the need for a new ‘narrative’ (4). Left unsaid was what, precisely, this new narrative would involve, or what the debate should be about.
An explanation for this narrowness is provided by Peter Mandelson’s decision to become a minister under Gordon Brown. There are those who view that decision as driven by personal aggrandisement or a late life hobby of collecting Ruritarian job titles, but this underestimates Peter Mandelson’s policy antennae. The Lord President of Council and First Secretary of State recognised that Brown’s policy agenda was only marginally different to that any alternative Labour leader would offer the nation. In this judgement, he was ultimately joined by old comrades like John Prescott and Alistair Campbell.
Meet the new crisis of social democracy, same as the old one
Despite this, it now suits most of us in the Labour Party to place the blame for our catastrophic defeat squarely on the shoulders of Gordon Brown and leave it there.
We’ve seen that there are conflicting strands to the critique of Brown. An inability to commit to Blair-like public service reform, or alternatively an unwillingness to repudiate the errors of late-era Blairism, meant Brown’s government was aimless, until, in a horrible stroke of fortune, the vision became the avoidance of cataclysm.
Both these arguments fail as entire explanations. Gordon Brown was no political imbecile. He had been a key player in the re-invention of the Labour Party and the delivery of three election victories. Equally, Brown was capable of some of the clearest thought in British politics. As Chancellor he identified key challenges, from the minimum wage to addressing poverty through redistribution via the tax system to increasing budgets for public services. Why would this clarity of purpose desert him once in Number Ten?
Isn’t it more likely that Brown faced a re-surfacing of a political problem that has tormented leaders of the Labour Party for nearly fifty years? The problem, simply put, is this. What is a progressive social democratic party actually for, if it is not able to spend more money than in the past?
This reading is uncomfortable, because it means we can no longer blame Gordon Brown for the failure of the Labour Party to develop a policy platform that successfully appeals to the British people in an environment unreceptive to an increase in the share of GDP devoted to public expenditure. What’s more, Gordon’s failure hurts more deeply because it represents a definitive rejection of Labour’s essential view of itself. For much of the Labour movement, Gordon was ‘one of us’ in a way Tony Blair never quite seemed to be. Gordon, it was said (often by himself), was a voice for the Labour movement’s passion for fairness, for a more equal society, for public services run in familiar, recognisable ways by structures and people we knew and trusted. Yes, Brown updated those measures. Yes, Brown spoke a language that business understood, but ultimately, Brown was Labour. He wanted to invest more in the public sector. He wanted to redistribute. He just wanted to do so quietly, carefully.
So when Gordon Brown failed so terribly, his conception of a Labour Party delivering social democratic aims by modern methods had failed with him. The middle ground Gordon Brown crafted between traditional Labour purposes and turbo-charged capitalist wealth creation went kaput, and along with it went any strategic clarity about how to marry Labour values and electoral success.
The failure of the last Labour Prime Minister was the failure of the most electorally successful conception of a Labour government, a conception that relied on the insight that the best way to achieve social democratic ends was to quietly pursue redistributive policies, ameliorating the howls of Labour’s traditional discontents with an offer of low taxes and public services improved by reform as much as by money.
New Labour as a project was kept afloat by a tide of cash. Now the flow is the other way, and we seem to want to talk about anything but that. What doomed the premiership of Gordon Brown was that without the ability to use economic growth to fund both low taxes and increased spending, his political choices became increasingly circumscribed. This remains the case for his successor. Until we confront the fact that the New Labour fiscal settlement is dead, we will not be able to build a political position to replace it.
The last Labour government may have faced economic disaster, but it was possible to borrow enough to avert the worst of the consequences. That’s not true for the next decade. If, as I argue, the New Labour settlement collapsed under the pressure of a fiscal squeeze, then to win again we need to conceive of a Labour mission that functions without the comfort of a painless expansion of public spending.
So far, the most coherent arguments for such a mission have come from the malcontents and dissidents of New Labour, who perhaps have an advantage in recognising that New Labour is dead.
From the left there are the traditional (very traditional, with calls for a ‘General Strike now’ in some cases) demands for a return to ideological purity. There is a pleasing consistency to this analysis (5). It argues that the problem was that New Labour did not confront banks, capitalism, wealth, privilege and Rupert Murdoch. The solution is higher taxes on banks, capitalism, wealth, privilege and Rupert Murdoch. We can use the funds gained to improve public services. All of this will be painless for those we seek to serve. This policy programme offers an analysis of the problem, and a clear solution. However, we tested this approach several times in the 1980s and early 90s, and it seemed relatively ineffective, electorally speaking.
Another group of New Labour discontents, gathered under the banner of ‘Blue Labour’, advise that we must abandon our belief in the post-1945 conception of the state and social democracy, and focus on social and cultural issues to rebuild our link with the electorate. However, while those who seek to redefine the left around community possess grand left-wing ambitions, they offer rather limited proposals to deliver them (6).
The left makes the more powerful point. The fundamental issue is not about neo-liberalism, whatever that is, or about community, or about the commoditisation of life. These are important, but second-order issues, used to distract ourselves from the big topic. This is, as ever, money.
Gordon Brown was perhaps the greatest exponent of British social democracy of the post-Thatcher era. He found a progressive path through the woods of the market economy by identifying that market-based growth could be used to fund social democratic programmes without burdening the populace with higher taxes. Since we have, for the foreseeable future, come to the end of that path, we must decide what direction the British Labour Party should now travel.
If voters are facing a squeeze on their standards of living, should we be offering increased support of public services at the cost of higher taxes, or encourage increased employment through a reduction of tax burdens and increased industrial investment, even if this lowers the priority we give to the public sector? If we need private sector business to grow – what is our basic approach to the taxation of industrial and financial profits?
For all we want to speak of the future, we seem extremely shy of addressing these issues head on. We want to talk about people’s problems, their fears, but are wary of our answers. Perhaps these issues scare us. Perhaps the incompleteness of our answers does too.
The failure of Gordon Brown to find an answer to these questions is nothing new.
It is a direct inheritance of the failure of Wilson, Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock. Confronted by fears of economic decay, Labour has rarely found an electorally appealing answer. Brown’s failure is merely the end point of a journey that began with the crisis of confidence of post-war social democracy. By 2015 it will be forty years since a Labour leader not named Blair won a general election. Fifty years since one won a clear majority.
To win again, we must confront the issue that Brown sought to elide, successfully as Chancellor, disastrously ineffectively as Prime Minister. What is the role of the progressive state when you are at the rough upper bound of state spending as a proportion of GDP that a market economy seems to find politically and economically acceptable? What is the progressive case in a fiscally conservative time?
The Gordon Brown premiership was a failure. But ultimately it was not a failure of one man. It was a failure of a vision of what a modernised Labour Party might be, how it might operate politically, economically and socially, and how it could do so in an environment increasingly hostile to social democracy.
The completeness of the failure of Gordon Brown has brought down the shutters, not only on New Labour, but also on the post-Thatcher centre-left’s essential view of itself. This may be his last service to the Labour Party he loves.
As for what follows, perhaps the answer for Labour may turn out to be a focus on securing a greater number of fruits from the means of production, distribution and exchange. We might emphasise public sector efficiency and fiscal restraint in order to release the resources to support private sector growth in our communities through public sector action, using the state to help others create the jobs that will build a shop-worn but still improved Jerusalem. We could be a party of fairness and justice, delivered by those now excluded from creating wealth by a system that is still rigged against them. We could envision a future that is structurally radical but fiscally conservative, interventionist but pro-market, prudent with budgets but with a new sense of social purpose based around the benefits of socially needed enterprise.
Of course, that might be a load of nonsense and we should do something completely different. That’s what we need to argue about.
One thing is certain. The total failure of Gordon Brown means we can’t fight the last battle again. Those dividing lines have been breached forever.
Ashcroft, M. (2010a) Minority Verdict, London, Biteback.
Ashcroft, M. (2010b) What Future for Labour?, at http://www.lordashcroft.com/pdf/25092010_what_future_for_labour.pdf.
Blair, T. (2010) A Journey, London, Hutchinson.
Blair, T. (2011) speech to Progress Fifteenth Anniversary Conference, 8.7.2011, at http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2011/07/08/progress-at-15/.
Diamond, P. and Radice, G. (2010) Southern Discomfort Again, London, Policy Network.
Glasman, M. (2010) ‘Heartbroken Britain’, Fabian Review 122 (4): 12-13.
Glasman, M., Rutherford, J., Stears, M. and White, S. (eds) (2011) The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, London, the Oxford London Seminars/Soundings.
Jones, O. (2011) 'The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged', Liberal Conspiracy 3.03.2011.
Kavanagh, D. and Cowley, P. (2010) The British General Election of 2010, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
Mandelson, P. (2010) The Third Man, London, Harper Press.
Miliband, D. (2008) ‘Against the odds we can still win’, Guardian 29.7.2008.
Mortimore, R. (2010) ‘Would Labour have won in 2010 if Blair was still leader?’, at http://ipsospanels.com/newsevents/ca/541/Would-Labour-have-won-in-2010-if-Blair-was-still-leader.aspx.
Powell, J. (2010) The New Machiavelli, London, Bodley Head.
Richards, S. (2010) Whatever It Takes, London, Fourth Estate.
Seldon, A. and Lodge, G. (2010) Brown at 10, London, Biteback.
1. It’s dangerous to read too much into this. I’ve read more than one article claiming that the scale of Labour’s decline between 1997 and 2005 and subsequent decline among social class DE voters shows that a more left positioning would have retained these voters. See for example Jones, 2011. However, if the Labour positioning that appealed most to these voters was the no tax increases, little spending pledge position of 1997, I wonder what point is being made about the policies which appeal to these voters.
2. See for example Diamond and Radice (2010, 11-16), or Kavanagh and Cowley (2010), which if you haven’t bought, you should.
3. Ashcroft, for example, claims that swing voters saying ‘Gordon Brown was not a good Prime Minister’ was the top reason Labour did not win the 2010 Election (2010b, 18).
4. See for example ‘Labour Whip is first to openly challenge PM’, Independent 13.9.2008, which includes calls for both a debate and a narrative.
5. You can find variants of this analysis among the host of left viewpoints flowering online from ‘Red Labour’ to Labour Left Briefing to GEER to elements of Compass. Knock yourselves out.
6. For example, Maurice Glasman has argued:
There is a fundamental choice before the Labour Party and it concerns the political economy. It needs to rediscover and then embrace the meaning of the Labour movement as the democratic resistance of organised working people to the commodification of their lives and environment.
This is impressively ambitious, but less so when we reach the proposed solutions: ‘It is about regional banking; the extension of the City of London to all the citizens of London; democratic representation of the vocational life of the country in the House of Lords’ (Glasman, 2010).