11 November 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, November 15 2003

Last week’s public spat between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair was about more than Brown’s displeasure at Blair’s refusal to give him a seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee — and it was about more than Brown’s opposition to identity cards or indeed his bizarre flirtation with Euroscepticism in the pages of the Daily Telegraph.

On this, everyone agrees. But how much more is difficult to judge. Was Brown merely asserting his status as the second-biggest beast in the Labour jungle after his return from paternity leave, with a view to (depending on your taste) grabbing a key role in writing Labour’s next manifesto, stopping Ken Livingstone’s return to Labour or stemming Peter Mandelson’s growing influence in Number Ten? Or was his display the start of an attempt to oust Blair as prime minister and take his place?

In common with every other commentator who has addressed these crucial questions, I can’t read Brown’s mind. But I suspect that he wasn’t going for broke.

However much he covets Blair’s job, it’s difficult to imagine circumstances before the next election in which he could mount a challenge. Blair’s standing inside the Labour Party is certainly at its lowest since he became leader in 1994. Brown is certainly the obvious alternative leader. But unless Blair is knocked down by the proverbial bus, discovered in flagrante with Prince Charles or branded an inveterate liar by Lord Hutton, the next ocassion on which he could be challenged for the Labour leadership is next year’s party conference — by which point Labour will be in pre-election mode.

Whatever else can be said about Brown, he is not stupid. So hunch says that last week’s shenanigans were less the start of an outright Brown bid for the leadership than a bit of opportunist self-promotion, a reminder to the world that the Chancellor remains the heir apparent, that he has ideas of his own that differ significantly from Blair’s — and that he is insistent on having a decisive influence on the manifesto, the career prospects of Red Ken and Mandy and anything else that crops up. In other words, it’s back to business as usual.

All the same, Brown did give the appearance of having lost patience with Blair, and it’s this, rather than any evidence that Brown is moving in for the kill, that has got everyone talking again about what Brown might be like as Prime Minister.

Here I have a confession to make. Ever since Blair became Labour leader in 1994, I’ve found it difficult to understand why a substantial number of Labour leftists — including the editor of Tribune and quite a few contributors — think that Brown would be significantly more sympathetic than Blair to their various causes.

Of course, Brown was, in the dim and distant past, very much of the left (though he was always a pragmatist too). And, unlike Blair, he is steeped in the traditions of This Great Movement of Ours. He speaks the lingo fluently and is rivalled as a glad-hander of trade union bureaucrats only by John Prescott.

Most important, Brown has so far been a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in terms both of macroeconomic management (six-and-a-half years of reasonable growth, low unemployment and no currency crisis) and, to a lesser extent, of social democratic redistribution. Although his stealth strategy has done nothing to stop the increasing ineqaulity of British society, it has at least helped some of the worst-off.

But there is not a shred of evidence that Brown has been to the left of Blair in any substantive way since at least 1992. In opposition from 1992 to 1997, Brown and Blair were together responsible for the ultra-cautious, pro-business strategy that was branded “New Labour” after Blair became leader. In government, Brown has not only been the author of many keynote policies — the 1997-99 spending squeeze and 1999-2003 spending splurge, the expansion of the Private Finance Initative, the welfare-to-work programme, the five tests on British membership of the euro — but has been intimately involved in every area of policy that entails spending money. He has been as enthusiastic as Blair for labour market deregulation and private enterprise, as admiring of the American model of capitalism and as disparaging of the European model. Where Brown has differed with Blair, on the euro and on foundation hospitals for example, it has not been because he sees Blair’s position as too right-wing.

Brown has said nothing to disassociate himself from the authoritarian populism of the government’s crime and immigration policies, nothing to suggest that he supports further constitutional reform, and nothing to hint that he’d prefer a less pro-American foreign policy than Blair has pursued. The left is deluding itself if it sees Brown as the champion of anything other than Blairism with a scowling face.

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