Is the Brown government finally starting to set out a distinctive political agenda? Here's my column from today's Newcastle Journal.
When he stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister less than 15 months ago, Gordon Brown told us his would be “a new government with new priorities.”
Ever since then, though, the country has waited in vain for some demonstration of how exactly he planned to renew the government, and how its priorities would be different.
Most people, including myself, have moreorless given up hope of hearing the answer, concluding that Mr Brown’s administration has no real purpose beyond staying in power as long as possible.
But this week, at five minutes to midnight in political terms, some straws in the wind began to emerge. Could Gordon, at long last, be about to set out his long-awaited “vision?”
What kicked it all off was an article in the obscure and normally uncontroversial Parliamentary Monitor, an in-house Commons magazine read exclusively by MPs, their staff, and people who attend party conferences.
Among other things, Mr Brown said it was time to “adapt and rethink New Labour policy” and admitted that something needed to be done to kick-start social mobility.
The Prime Minister’s spin doctors attempted to play down the significance of those words, but in a speech to the TUC the following day, his deputy Harriet Harman went much further.
Her address, saying the government needed to start tackling the inequality of opportunity between "rich and poor" and "north and south” had the Tories foaming at the mouth about a new “class war.”
So what’s happening? Well, it was understandable that Team Brown would try to make light of it all.
The worst thing that could happen, going in to what really is a make-or-break conference season for the Prime Minister, is for expectations about his big speech the week after next to get out of hand.
But nevertheless, I think we are finally seeing the genesis of a distinctive Brown agenda, although whether it will do much to rescue his political fortunes is very open to doubt.
Labour will probably call it “fairness first.” The Tories will brand it a “lurch to the left.” Either way, it is, at last, authentic Gordon.
Mr Brown’s comments in the Monitor contained more clues as to what he’s going to say in Manchester a week on Monday than the average Agatha Christie novel.
“We need to be honest with ourselves: while poverty has been reduced and the rise in inequality halted, social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted,” he wrote.
"A child's social class background at birth is still the best predictor of how well he or she will do at school and later on in life. Our ambitions for a fairer Britain cannot be satisfied in the face of these injustices."
“At our conference in Manchester and in the weeks that follow, I will set out how I – and our party, and our government, and our country – must rise to conquer those challenges and to ensure fairness for all.”
The theme was picked up by Ms Harman on Wednesday when she said she wanted everyone to "get a fair crack of the whip" whatever their "socio-economic class.”
It was entirely predictable that the Tories would cry “class war!” with Shadow Commons Leader Teresa May saying focusing on class and background was "outdated and distracts from the real issues.”
If Britain was a genuinely classless society, she would be right. But whereas class distinctions did begin to blur in the 70s and 80s, the whole point about social mobility is that it has since ground to a halt.
Ms Harman is doing no more than point out a very obvious truth, albeit one that, Darlington MP Alan Milburn aside, New Labour has refused to talk about for most of the past decade.
All of this ought to be music to the ears of Labour supporters in the North-East – assuming they are still listening, that is.
Narrowing the gap in economic growth rates between the North and South used to be an explicit aim of government policy, but it was quietly dropped once they realised how difficult it would be – and that it would involve spending large amounts of money in the poorer regions.
These days, it is rare to find explicit mention of the North-South divide in Labour ministerial speeches, but Ms Harman appears to have bucked that depressing trend.
Sure, it needs to be backed up by some action – but if it’s a sign that regional inequalities are back on the government’s radar, then it’s certainly a start.
The wider politics of all this are unclear. The Tories will doubtless try to characterise it as a “core vote strategy” on Labour’s part, claiming they are vacating the much-prized “political centre ground.”
But to my mind, that analysis falls into the Blairite trap of arguing that any departure from the “Middle England” agenda of the previous Prime Minister spells electoral doom for Labour.
What Messrs Brown and Harman are saying is no more than what used to be known as good old-fashioned “One Nation” politics – the idea that economic and social divisions are quite simply bad for the country as a whole.
I think Mr Brown is quite capable of making a reasoned case for this without looking like some throwback to the 1970s Trotskyist left.
As I have written before, the growth in inequality that has occurred under a party whose whole raison d’etre was to help the worst-off is the biggest single blot on Labour’s record over the past 11 years.
If they can start to turn that around in their 12th and 13th years in office, they will at least have done something to redeem themselves.
It is unlikely, if we’re honest, to alter the result of the next election on its own. But if Labour is destined to lose, the party will at least leave office with its head held higher.
The “fairness agenda” may not gain Mr Brown more support. What it will do is gain him more respect.