The Brown Stuff

April 21, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, What's left? | 1 Comment
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Gordon Brown by Flickr User Tim Waters (Creative Commons)

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later; Jackie Ashley holds her nose and defends the indefensible.

To those who think the polls could not get worse, I say: just you wait. A leadership battle is just the sort of tempting quick-fix confection that turns out to be honey-coated poison. David Miliband had it right at the weekend when he warned colleagues that they had to rally round the leader and stop fighting one another. Discipline under fire is what is desperately needed.

And it will have to last. For after the 10p vote will be plenty more possible crises, not least the vote over the 42-day detention proposal. On both, I am 100% against the official government view and, with every instinct, on the side of the Labour rebels. But disaster is looming and the real parliamentarians have carefully to weigh in the balance what they now do, and ask how much likelier it will make a Tory landslide a year hence.

And so it has come to this: after over a decade of mixed success in pursuing social justice – a decade where progressives were implored to ‘get real’ and ‘see the bigger picture’ whenever they challenged every rightward lurch – Labour MPs are once again ordered to swallow two heinous pieces of legislation for no other reason than to retain their rather weak grip on power. Yes, Ashley admits, both the 10p tax abolition and the 42-day detention are atrocious policies. In fact, you could call them a mutilation of progressive principles. But you must vote for them anyway. It’s what Nye Bevan would’ve wanted.

But as Gordon tries to save his beloved tax hike on working class people, he would do well to consider that the death-march of his leadership isn’t just a failure of policy; it’s a failure of the way he practices his politics.

I’ll argue ’til blue red in the face with anyone who insists there are no major differences between Labour and the Conservatives (indeed, it’s worth reminding ourselves that a glance at David Cameron’s record reveals him to be far from a cuddly, common-ground centrist), but you can hardly get angry when people think that. Whatever problems The Left may have had with Blair (and I had plenty), it’s still true that Labour fought the last two elections on a sharp distinction between the parties: Labour will use your tax money to invest in world-class schools and hospitals, safer streets and a vibrant economy; the Conservatives will slash investment in your children’s future in order to give themselves tax cuts that’ll pay for another fortnight in Monaco. It was crude, but it worked.

Now, it’s not entirely Gordon’s fault that events have made this distinction more blurred. For one, an economic downturn and a reliance on borrowing means there isn’t the money to keep expanding public sector investment, particularly when increasing numbers wonder whether we’ve seen value for money. The Conservatives were also wise to insist on imitating Labour’s tax plans for their first few years in power, thus robbing him of the opportunity to tar them as the public sector’s grim reaper.

Nonetheless, where there should’ve been bold thinking and bright new initiatives, we have seen, as Matthew Parris noted, a politician so bound by point-scoring calculation that he now appears before the electorate ans a muzzled, ideologically-neutered animal.

Whilst there’ve been plenty of ‘I told you sos’ in recent weeks, it’s still true that The Left should’ve woken up to this quicker than we did, particularly when some of the danger signs were apparent within the first few weeks of his reign. Sure, the ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ thing was pretty irksome and his meeting with Thatcher – whilst a generous act of social care – was equally brazen, but announcing troop withdrawals from Iraq during last year’s Tory conference was nothing less than a morally-bankrupt act. Over the last few years, I’ve seen plenty of politicians politicise the military to score points off their rivals, but the perpatrators have almost exclusively been Republicans and the victims have been Democrats. It is as wrong for them to do it as it is for us.

And then we get to Brown’s biggest crime – his surrender of inheritance tax to the Tories. What did Gordon gain by giving-away a historically non-negotiable part of Labour Party policy? Well, go check the latest opinion polls (hint: not too much).

Whilst we’re on the subject of selling-out Labour Party principles for absolutely no political gain let’s return to the 10p tax rate and a key paragraph from Toynbee’s last piece:

The 10p rate was a fiddly complexity that needed abolishing. Brown had a right choice and a wrong choice. He could take all 10p payers out of tax altogether, a move that would cost £7bn and cut everyone’s tax a bit, with the lowest-paid gaining most. Instead he used that £7bn to cut 2p off basic income tax, so the better-off gained. (Someone on £30,000 gains more from a 2p cut than someone on £15,000.) Those 10p losers were victims of a deliberate choice to give more to the better-off. People warned Brown before his last budget, but he ignored them. Yet if middle England whooped with gratitude at their tax cut, I somehow missed that moment. As ever, they banked it and forgot it. (emphasis mine)

In other words, on both this and the issue of inheritance tax, Gordon not only failed to do the right thing; he did the wrong thing and achieved no political reward.

This all begs the question of what on earth Brown thought he could gain from this. Did he really think his government would be better-placed if he robbed the electorate, the right-wing press and the Conservative Party of one less issue to complain about? Well, we live in a culture of complaint and it’s impossible for any government to satisfy them all. Even with a rise in the inheritance tax threshold, a 2p cut in income tax, a tougher immigration policy, higher taxes on booze to prevent binge drinking, tougher sentencing for offenders, a distancing of Britain from the United States, a refusal to attend a signing ceremony for the European Treaty, a belated refusal to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, the country still has much to complain about.

A good government seeks to solve those complaints when can and engages in robust dialogue when it can’t, but for the rest of the time it merely needs to show momentum and resolve. It needs to show that progress is being made, that new ideas are being hatched, that important matters are being dealt-with decisively by serious minds for whom the political ramifications come secondary to Doing The Right Thing.

In our deluded fantasies, Brown was the leader of this good government. Now we can’t be sure he should lead any government at all.

Photo of Gordon Brown by Tim Waters (Creative Commons)

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  1. […] to be good friends and one sent me an email querying some of the things I’d written in my angry dismissal of Gordon Brown. I hope he’ll forgive me for reprinting parts of it here: Do you think the government should […]


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