ony Blair announced the day after the 2004
Party Conference his intention to stand down as Party Leader
after serving a full third term as Prime Minister. With a
leadership contest in prospect sometime between now and 2009/10,
how will the leading contender Gordon Brown be judged by
Whether you believe Blair’s stated intentions or
not. The race is on. The odds at the leading bookmakers are
on a leadership contest within a year, if the next General
Election takes place as expected in May.
Should the Party rally round and follow Clare Short’s
advice after her resignation in May 2003 and arrange an elegant
succession for Brown to take over? Or will there be a contested
leadership election? Support for a left candidate to take
on Brown was expressed last month (February) at the Campaign
for Labour Party Democracy 2005 AGM. What would that achieve?
The international and domestic political realities will not
have changed. Labour’s capacity to maintain economic
growth, low interest rates and full employment will remain.
Labour’s obligation to sustain its values in the fight
for social justice, civil liberties and the rule of law both
at home and abroad will not have diminished. The latest opinion
polls already show Brown consistently ahead of Blair in the
eyes of the electorate as the most popular politician in
To secure broader support in the Party, Brown has already
come out, according to his latest biographer, Robert Peston* who
‘At the time of writing Brown is re-inventing himself
as a genuine alternative to Blair – no longer a de
facto Blairite – partly
on the basis of his different vision for the future of the
public services and the NHS. His platform for a future leadership
election – wherever it comes – is that the
ethos of public service, as distinct from the profit motive,
is redeemable. He made this explicit in a speech on October
22, 2004 at a conference organised by Compass….’
In the wake of Blair’s blunders in his second term
whether over foreign policy, viz Iraq, education – top-up
fees, health – foundation hospitals, or civil liberties – internment
and house arrest, anyone could be forgiven for wondering, “What
is Tony Blair for?”
So Gordon Brown is on the move both literally and politically.
Often accused by the left of being too close to America,
he was in Africa in January promoting his plans to reduce
Third World debt and China in February to promote British
industry and services. These are practical expressions of
his global perspective that has made him a marked man ideologically.
For a leading world-trading nation like Britain, there is
no scope for socialism in one country as far as Brown is
He shares with Tony Blair a sense of history. But that’s
where the similarity ends. Blair is preoccupied with his
own. Brown is steeped in the Party’s. Once mocked for
a speech espousing endogenous growth theory, he is now able
to show what he was talking about. History will be kinder,
much kinder, to Gordon Brown, whether he gets to be Prime
Minister or not.
Every previous Labour government floundered over the economy,
until Brown. He dared to believe in restoring full employment.
It is easy to forget that 15 years ago, politicians were
frightened to even voice that idea in private. Brown struggled
to understand how best to achieve social justice in the face
of the global economy. His conclusions are reshaping thinking
among democratic socialists. Brown knows globalisation cannot
be stopped. It can only be tamed. Now his passion is shaping
policy in Britain to enable Labour values to be achieved
from a global perspective.
Yet it cannot be denied, he is the same man who only last
year announced 84,500 civil service job cuts without prior
notice to staff. So how can he be taken seriously by the
left? For anyone in one of those jobs outrage, anger, frustration
and a sense of betrayal are all understandable. But given
the rate of staff turnover in the posts concerned, the aim
of reshaping public service could be achieved without compulsory
redundancy. This controversy goes to the heart of the relationship
between Labour in government, rank-and-file, and organised
labour, in particular. Those headline numbers have to be
compared to the rate of job creation in Britain’s growing
economy to be put into perspective.
Brown has been in charge of Labour economic and financial
policies for over twelve years. Peston describes how after
Labour’s 1992 election defeat Brown set about his job
as Shadow Chancellor with such determination to shed Labour’s
image as the party of devaluation, economic profligacy and
inefficiency that his own stock plummeted. As a result of
the so-called Granita Pact in 1994 when Blair was given a
free run at the leadership, Brown has enjoyed unparalleled
freedom to shape policy. According to Peston, the last time
Tony Blair made any contribution to Labour economic policy
was in 1995. So what are the lessons now? Brown’s prawn
cocktail offensives in the 1990s may have won over the City
and big business. But he forgot the beer and sandwiches.
Too few Party members understood the significance of what
Brown called the New Economics, and Blair, as the media savvy
candidate took the leadership title replacing the late John
Nevertheless, Brown remained loyal to the Party. He knew
that for Labour to succeed in government and get re-elected
it had to get a grip on the economy. He set about planning
a coup de grace – independence for the Bank
of England. The rank-and-file struggled to come to terms
with this proposal then, and many are still furious with
him. At the heart of Brown’s evolving policy framework
was recognition of the need for sound money. His preferred
option was to transfer responsibility for setting the price
of money (aka interest rates) to the Bank of England from
the Treasury, from the elected to the unelected. Was it anti-democratic?
At first glance, it was profoundly so. Should he be forgiven
Look at the record. To what do we now owe the return of
full employment and the longest period of sustained economic
growth for some 200 years? Was it luck? Or should Gordon
Brown now be given recognition for an inspired move to enable
him and his successors as Chancellors of the Exchequer (aka
finance ministers) to concentrate on strategic economic and
financial thinking? The alternative was doing what every
other Labour chancellor has done - worry day to day about
the price of money, and the exchange rate. Such concerns
cost Labour its reputation and ability to govern throughout
the 20th century. Brown had the prescience to realise that
the public places greater trust in bankers to look after
their money, than politicians. Labour owes its reputation
for sound economic management and the freedom to work for
social justice to him personally and the team he built around
him. The system for setting interest rates is open and transparent.
Incidentally, there are profound lessons here for the future
conduct of government and the restoration of due process,
collective cabinet responsibility and executive accountability
Every member of the Labour Party, especially prospective
parliamentary candidates, needs to think about the implications
of Gordon Brown being moved from the Treasury on international
financial markets should Labour win a third term with Blair
still in place as Leader. Blair has repeatedly sought to
pressure Brown into taking Britain into the European Monetary
Union. Brown has steadfastly resisted until the now famous
five economic conditions are met. The risks of political
interference in the economy if the Blairites win a landslide
3 rd term cannot be understated.
For revolutionary socialists maintaining the confidence
of world markets is just propping up the capitalist system.
At least democratic socialists recognise that the world has
moved on and the route to social justice is through understanding
markets and their limitations. And Brown could be said to
be at the forefront of that movement.
More damaging politically to Brown’s reputation is
the allegation that Labour economic policy is just Thatcherism
continued. Matthew Watson summed this up in a paper to the
Political Studies Association annual conference in 1998:
‘An important step on the road to the wholesale acceptance
of the Thatcherite economic agenda – an odyssey which
the Labour Party itself prefers to describe as its ‘modernisation’ – was
1993 pamphlet, How We Can Conquer Unemployment’ .
Set against that is the Brown’s record as an interventionist,
which was clearly signaled before Labour won power in 1997.
Writing about his Medium Term Strategy in the Guardian in
1996, Brown said:
‘At the heart of the debate about modern theories
of growth is a simple contention: while crude, free-market
dogma has failed Britain, good government intervention
can make a difference’.
Having spelled out his intentions, he wasted no time in
office as Chancellor to demonstrate that Labour was serious.
A windfall tax was slapped on the privatised utilities to
pay for the New Deal to get young unemployed people back
to work. An internal battle was won reportedly to fend off
attempts by Blair to secure an opportunistic exemption for
British Telecommunications plc (aka BT). This was on the
pretext that BT was willing to pay for the wiring up of every
school in the UK. Brown’s plan survived thanks to legal
advice that there could be no favours. Typically for Blair
who announced the BT offer at party conference, it was never
sealed. Under Brown, Labour instituted the minimum wage despite
widespread opposition from business. These measures together
with major reforms to the welfare system, also engineered
through the Treasury, are putting millions of pounds into
the pockets of those on low incomes, including pensioners.
But the allegations of neo-conservative economic thinking
persist due to Brown’s apparent uncritical stance towards
private finance initiatives to boost investment in public
service infrastructure, the lone parents benefit fiasco or
the miserly 75 pence increase in the state pension in the
1999 budget. There are major issues concerning the future
of pension provision and affordable housing to be addressed
too. And he still retains a reputation for command and control
ambitions possibly exceeding those of the current Party leader.
But looking forward there can be in no doubt that Gordon
Brown’s prudence has opened up new possibilities for
democratic socialism with his planned increases in public
spending and investment. He has laid Labour’s economic
bogies of deflation and economic profligacy to rest. He has
proved he is neither a laissez-faire neo-liberal nor a neo-conservative.
He is already honing his democratic credentials by leading
a Cabinet rebellion over House of Lords’ reform, and
demanding an elected second chamber not an appointed chamber
as favoured by Blair.
According to Peston, Brown is credited
with the most extensive Cabinet consultation ever over
the case for Britain biding its time over entering the European
Monetary Union, reopening the door to a return to collective
cabinet responsibility. Sadly missing are any clear signs
of his intentions towards the Labour Party itself, now
a shrunken shell of a mainstream mass membership political
body. Twice Blair refused to nominate him to the National
Executive Committee. So on that count we may have to wait.
He has also got some fence building to do concerning rich
and poor, PFI, pensions and the housing market. Maybe that
will have to wait until the tax straightjacket, being imposed
by Blair, can be shed as part of a more honest relationship
to be built by Labour-in-government with both a long-suffering
party, and the electorate.
When the time comes to elect a new Labour leader, the democratic
left could well ponder the full credentials of Gordon Brown
- 21 st century global leftie?
* Peston, R. Brown’s
Britain (2005) Short Books, London