Always a frown with golden brown

European Politics, Politics

Good God. If there was one thing at least that was good about the Brown government, it was that he finally threw out those execrable Blairite beasts of spin and deceit, Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell. And now they’re both to return? And Alan Milburn too – for a healthy injection of free market idolization, right now the crisis is exposing its folly?

Throw in the floated return of Blunkett and Clarke and the authoritarian wing of New Labour would be back in full force too, for a fully-fledged restoration of late Blairism. Great – cause that was proving to end so well a couple of years ago.

Image used under CC license from the World Economic Forum

Image used under CC license from the World Economic Forum

What Brown is lacking is a spine and a consistent vision. His problem is not that he veered away from Blairite policies; it’s not that he supposedly turned all Old Labour. It’s certainly not his assertive response to the financial crisis, which was praised internationally. It’s his opportunism.

After staunchly pushing through New Labour economic policies for a decade, he missed the credibility to stir traditional Labour constituencies from their slumber again, when he finally appeared to want to correct Blairite excess. And before you could say “maybe he really means it,” he’s already turning on his heels again, in desperation at Labour’s turgid recovery in the polls.

His profile has simply been incoherent. In an otherwise rather silly take on Milburn’s return, the Telegraph’s Janet Daley does put her finger on it when she reviews Brown’s erstwhile snubs of Blair’s ultras: “Did he block them back then because he was opposed in principle or simply as part of his great sulk over Tony Blair’s ascendancy?”

Right, that’s the question he never delivered a persuasive answer to. So now he’s ended up with the worst of both worlds, trusted by neither the left nor the Blairites; by neither the disaffected working class voters who have come to prefer staying home or even voting BNP, nor the business types and middle class suburbanites who see a new and improved Blair in David Cameron.

Half a year ago, Jon Cruddas, after coming in third in the race for Labour’s deputy chairman post, laid out a sound and sensible analysis of the problem Labour faces and how the current time offers it an opportunity to reinvent itself:

The New Labour project is exhausted. There are vague plans by Blairites to resurrect it. But this is not the 1990s: the New Labour brand is now toxic. In such endings lie new beginnings. [..]

The prospects for a more egalitarian social democracy are arguably better now than they were in 1997. Whoever wins the next election, there will be no re-run of the neoliberal economics of the 1980s and 90s. Three decades of economic restructuring have been brought to an end by recession. The frenzied period of financial speculation and profiteering is over. [..]

Britain faces acute problems in creating a more equal and sustainable economy. Decades of wealth creation have ended up in the pockets of a few. Wage levels are stagnating or falling. Benefit levels continue to drop behind earnings, unemployment is set to rise. Welfare reform will see an increasing number of the ill and disabled excluded from all forms of social support. [..]

The Conservatives, with their hostility toward the state, will not be able to defend society from market failure. [..] Labour now has an historic opportunity to seize the political high ground. The era of selfish individualism is on the wane. The electorate is increasingly concerned with social insurance, safeguarding living standards and ensuring social stability and ecological sustainability. From stranded holidaymakers to pension holders, to those falling ill, they are discovering that these collective goods are in dangerously short supply.

The future will demand a more active and democratic state engaging with economic development and regulation. The redistribution of wealth and resources will be essential in rebalancing a dysfunctional economy. [..]

The Labour party [..] has to democratise itself and turn outward [..]. Labour needs to go back to the people, and it must re-establish its roots in the working class communities whose traditional cultures and sense of belonging have been destroyed. [..] The future lies in remaking our politics from the bottom up.

Though Cruddas’s words certainly created some heat (a drunk Blairite at the Labour Party conference tried to punch him in the men’s toilet), his call was not picked up. Although Brown flirted with the notion that a waning era of selfish individualism was now wanting for a new call for collective responsibility, he conceived this mostly in terms of the Calvinist morality he grew up in.

Image used under CC license by Flickr user Deditos

Image used under CC license by Flickr user Deditos

Brown did away with the worst excesses of New Labour’s breathless spin culture, but he hasn’t dared to go beyond just cutting the crap, and setting a new course for Labour substantively. He’s prevaricated, managing to piss off the Blairite ultras even while disappointing the lefties, and has failed to expand his basis in the party beyond a small core of Brownite loyalists.

The other reason is that even those calling for a fundamental analysis of Labour’s woes and a return to basics in political strategy, like Cruddas, suffer a credibility problem. Just take a look at the user comments to his piece in the Guardian. While half the commenters derisively jeered at his retrograde socialism, the other half called him out on his pretty words and new-found gospel – because where was he when all this came about then? What was he actually doing about it?

If Campbell, Blunkett and Clarke rejoin Milburn and Mandelson in Brown’s team, the next (early?) elections look set to be a rerun of Blair’s sunset races, just without Blair himself. Seems like the healing of Labour will have to wait until its stint in opposition comes after those.

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