27 September 2008

Brown: the unexpected (but fragile) fightback

Well, Gordon Brown, eh. Just when everyone's started to agree with the likes of Guido Fawkes that he's out for the count, he rebounds with what was generally reckoned to be the best speech of his career. OK, so I couldn't be bothered to actually watch it - I was a party conference-free zone this year, after 4 years of traipsing round the awful things in my previous job. And the people who said Brown was doing well are the very same people who were saying we were "over the worst of the credit crunch" 2 months ago - so take them with a salt shaker or three.

But Brown's line "it's no time for a novice" seems to have found some temporary resonance with the electorate. Guardian / ICM has Labour up to 32% - only 3 points shy of where they were in 2005. Now, of course, that ain't enough to win, or even to prevent losing. Labour had 32% at the 1987 election and the Tories still got a majority of 100. Also, parties usually get a post-conference bounce - so it is very likely that Labour will go right back down the week after next, once the polling numbers come through from Dave Cameron's speech (in previous years Dave's conference speeches have been minor miracles of cosy vacuity which the public, sensing the reincarnation of Tony Blair, has warmed to for some reason).

However, even if the recovery is transient, it does offer some slim hope for Labour. Firstly, Brown can make a good speech on occasion. Secondly, there are still swing voters out there who could return to Labour if the conditions were right. Thirdly, the economic crisis might help Labour, as it did the Tories in '92, if they think Labour has a better chance of handling it than the Tories. I'm not sure why they would think that, given that New Labour was absolutely complicit in getting us into the present mess, but hey - don't look a gift horse in the mouth. The 'no time for a novice' line seems to have some traction...

...But on its own I very much doubt it'll be enough. Brown has bought himself some time and none of the challengers for the premiership has decided to pounce. Miliband has tested the water and decided to play it safe, whilst Johnson has (sadly) ruled himself out. Any other names on the table are too duff to contemplate (Harriet Harman, ferchrissakes....)

So what can Brown do to build a revival? Well, the resignation of Ruth Kelly may have pointed the way forward. It's not clear whether the timing of Kelly's departure was her attempt to stick the knife in or whether it was precipitated by bungled leaking from Number 10 - but for the purposes of this post, that is irrelevant. What matters is that a leading Blairite left the cabinet and the impact was... extremely minimal. She has of course been briefing about the need not to "shift to the left" and all that crap... yes Ruth, let's stick with the failed centre-right policies of the last 11 years. Great idea, there.

But if one Blairite can depart without any negative consequences, why not kick out all the useless bastards? Not Miliband - for one thing it's far from clear that he actually is 'Blairite' and for another thing he's too dangerous to have outside the Cabinet. And not Johnson - again he's not really 'Blairite' or 'Brownite' - just very effective, and a good communicator. But useless idiots like John Hutton, Hazel Blears and James Purnell can safely be jettisoned at this point. They're just dead wood and are getting in the way.

Brown needs to build on the revival and assert his authority. The statesmanlike 'govt of all the talents' idea - relying on odious morons like Digby Jones and Andrew Adonis - just confused people and looked bureaucratic and unfocused. The further he strayed from core Labour values, the weaker the govt has looked - the 10p tax rate debacle, for example, was a disaster.

He should broaden his base on the left, not the right - John Cruddas, for example, would be a massive asset to the Cabinet. And given the collapse of the Thatcher/Reagan economic model that we've been in hock to since 1980, some serious consideration of alternative economic strategy by the Number 10 Policy Unit and the Treasury is absolutely vital. Given that the Tories have very little to offer on economic policy (that's why they've been so quiet in the current crisis), and that Nick Clegg seems to have shifted the LibDems to an extreme right tax-cutting agenda, there is more room to manoevure on the centre-left and left than there's been for some time. But Gordon Brown needs to seize the initiative and not sleepwalk from crisis to crisis as he's been doing for the last 12 months. Come on son. You know you can do it.

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