Saturday, September 27, 2008

A lot done, a lot still to do

Gordon Brown's fightback may have begun in Manchester on Tuesday - but there is still a very long way to go. Here's my column from today's Newcastle Journal.


There are some Labour conference speeches that literally changed history. Tony Blair’s ditching of Clause IV in 1994. Neil Kinnock’s murderous assault on Militant in 1985. Nye Bevan’s stand against unilateralism in 1957.

Gordon Brown has never been in the Blair, Kinnock or Bevan class as an orator. His talents as a platform speaker have never been more than slightly on the better side of workmanlike.

Yet this week, our beleaguered Prime Minister gave himself a fighting chance of making what would truly be a history-making return from the ranks of the political walking dead.

Sure, he is not yet even close to being out of the woods. But in Manchester on Tuesday, he finally delivered the speech that his admirers have wanted to hear him make ever since he took over as Labour leader 15 months ago.

During the Blair years, we became accustomed to regarding the Labour Party as a devastatingly successful electoral machine, but one that seemed devoid of any real values.

The party appeared to have moved a long, long way from Harold Wilson’s famous description of it as “a moral crusade or nothing.”

Mr Brown has not restored that lost moral compass at a stroke. Mere words alone cannot accomplish that.

But on Tuesday, in setting out his vision of the “fair society,” he finally reminded his party why it exists.

In a way, events have moved in his favour. The global financial meltdown has finally demonstrated the limits of free-market capitalism and made the idea of state intervention fashionable again.

As one commentator put it: “Labour folk have seized on the collapse and bailout of the big banks as evidence that the neo-liberal era is over.”

Hence it is made easier for Mr Brown to say on Tuesday that his “new settlement for new times” must be “a settlement where both markets and governments are seen to be the servants of the people, not their masters.”

To the biggest cheers of the day he added: “Just as those who supported the dogma of big government were proved wrong, so too those who argue for the dogma of unbridled market forces have been proved wrong.”

But though this was duly lapped up by the faithful, Mr Brown didn’t really get into his stride until he started to talk about his “fairness agenda” – the real emotional core of Tuesday’s address.

“Why do we always strive for fairness? Not because it makes good soundbites. Not because it gives good photo opportunities. Not because it makes for good PR. No. We do it because fairness is in our DNA,” he said.

“It's who we are - and what we're for. It's why Labour exists. It's our first instinct, the soul of our party. It's why when things get tough, we get tougher."

Here, at last, was some recognition that the Labour Party does indeed have a higher purpose than simply staying in power.

And yet., and yet……the towering question that, for me, hangs over this week’s events in Manchester is why Mr Brown could not have made that speech 12 months ago.

Had he chosen to set out his vision then, rather than winding-up the Tories about an early election, it is at least arguable that the collapse in public support for him over the past year would not have happened.

As it is, Mr Brown has done no more than buy himself a bit more time this week in which to try to turn a desperate political situation around.

The early signs are good – one poll showed a 7pc bounce for Labour in the wake of the speech – but the rhetoric must now be backed up with more action if the momentum is to be maintained.

Mr Brown can at least reassure himself that his main rival, Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband, had an uncommonly bad week.

He found himself on the wrong end of the Prime Minister’s clever two-in-one put-down "this is no time for a novice” – a line which had the brutal touch of Alastair Campbell written all over it.

Mr Miliband also got into hot water by being overheard comparing himself to the erstwhile Tory leadership pretender, Michael Heseltine.

Wrong, David. Michael Heseltine was a man of courage who resigned from a government on a point of principle and later openly challenged the most powerful Prime Minister of modern times.

Some of the shine was inevitably knocked off the Prime Minister’s speech by the 3am news of Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly’s resignation the following morning, but like so much in politics, this turned out to be cock-up rather than conspiracy.

Dark rumours had initially swirled around Manchester that Ms Kelly was part of a nefarious Blairite plot to undermine Mr Brown in his moment of triumph.

The truth was rather more prosaic. It appears that a Downing Street press officer got into a rather heavy session with some journalists in a hotel bar and became a trifle indiscreet.

It shows that things haven’t changed all that much in the five years since I last attended a party conference as Journal political editor.

For Mr Brown, the prospect of another humiliating by-election defeat, in Glenrothes in early November, still hangs over him like a sword of Damocles

The reshuffle, too, looks ever more problematical. Rumours persist that a cadre of ministers will refuse to be moved or even refuse to serve in a clear challenge to Mr Brown’s authority.

Over him, too, hangs the twin spectres of Sir Menzies Campbell in 2007 and Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, two leaders who got rapturous receptions from their party conferences yet were gone within weeks.

The Prime Minister made a great speech on Tuesday. But he has a long way to go before he alters what still seems to be the inevitable tide of history.

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Gregg said...

the towering question that, for me, hangs over this week’s events in Manchester is why Mr Brown could not have made that speech 12 months ago.

Or 12 years.

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