Saturday, October 03, 2009

Too late to change

Why was Gordon Brown's well-crafted and policy-rich speech on Tuesday not more of a success? It wasn't because of a right-wing newspaper switching back to its natural allegiance, or even because of Andy Marr's impertinent questions about pill-popping. It was simply because all the talk of "change" begged too many questions about why real change hasn't happened earlier.

Here's today's Journal column - a couple of hundred words shorter from now on as it's moved to a new position in the paper.

One of the most oft-heard criticisms of Tony Blair’s conference speeches as Labour leader was that, although invariably delivered with great aplomb, they tended to be fairly vacuous when it came to policy.

Gordon Brown, it seems, has the opposite problem. His speeches are no more than workmanlike in comparison with the oratorical brilliance of his predecessor’s – but there is actually far more meat on the bones.

There was certainly plenty in his speech in Brighton on Tuesday to get your teeth into – be it electoral reform, the national care plan, supervised hostels for teenage mums, or free childcare for two-year-olds.

It also drew a very clear dividing line between the government’s handling of the economic crisis, and what would have happened under the Tories. And yet the press and public still seemed underwhelmed.

One criticism that has been regularly heard this week was that for all its new announcements, the speech lacked a real “game changer,” something capable of altering the political weather at a stroke.

One good example of this in recent years was George Osborne’s 2007 pledge to cut inheritance tax, which was widely credited with scuppering Mr Brown’s plans for an autumn election that year.

Mr Brown even managed something of a “game changer” himself last year with his “no time for a novice” soundbite which caught the mood of the country as the economy tipped into recession.

The lack of anything as dramatic or memorable this time round has led many to conclude that, despite all the talk of a fightback, the conference has ultimately done nothing to alter Labour’s downward political trajectory.

For my part, though, this wasn’t the most serious criticism of the Prime Minister’s performance. For me, the real problem with the speech and its panoply of new policies was that it begged the question: why now?

The key message of the speech, repeated again and again by Mr Brown, was “the change we choose” – yet if he was really the change-maker he believes himself to be, he would not have waited until now to make them.

He talked about ending 24-hour drinking back in 2007, shortly after he first came to power. Yet it has taken until now to announce it.

He flirted with constitutional reform back then too, but his initial proposals were timid and it has taken until now to announce the one thing without which no meaningful change can occur - a referendum on the voting system.

The U-turns are equally perplexing. Compulsory ID cards were a Blairite idea borne of the former Prime Minister’s obsession with out-toughing the Tories on law and order, whatever the cost to individual liberties. Why wait until now to ditch it?

And it is this question – why now? – which goes to the heart not only of why Mr Brown’s speech ultimately failed to cut the mustard, but why his premiership has been such a disappointment.

The sad truth is that Mr Brown had his chance to be the change the country needed when he took over from Mr Blair - but he blew it by failing to follow his radical instincts.

Two years on, the public is rightly sceptical as to whether a man who has been at or near the top of government for 12 years, and who bears a fair degree of responsibility for some of the failings of that period, can credibly represent change now.

Mr Brown can at least take comfort from the lack of obvious competition for his job. Alan Johnson declared once again this week that he wasn’t up to it, and he’s now said it so many times that people are starting to agree with him.

Peter Mandelson’s virtuoso performance on Monday would surely have established him as the only credible replacement – were it not for the fact that he is in the Lords.

But while the policy programme set out by Mr Brown this week constitutes a decent enough prospectus for a Labour fourth term, the Prime Minister is no longer seen by voters as the man to implement it.

This realisation has already dawned on most of the Labour Party. At some point between now and next May, I expect it to dawn on Mr Brown too.

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Toque said...

He didn't ditch ID cards, he just ruled them out of the next parliament, probably because we can't afford to waste money like he used to.

He's a political coward. We knew that when he became PM, we are even more sure of it now.

Ted Foan said...

Tacit acceptance that Labour is not going to be able to do enough to win the general election, Paul?

His so-called policy announcements were a hotch-potch of vote-chasing ideas that have little chance of becoming reality. And where is the money coming from? More borrowing and no indication of how to get the economy growing again to pay for it.

Vicarious Phil said...

Meat to get your teeth into? No just a shopping list of policy stuff. You're right Paul, it's too late. He had his chance. Brown is the drowning man flailing around hoping this collection of policy announcements will keep him afloat. Cameron in contrast can afford to make far less known about his future plans because he has momentum and looks and sounds like he knows what he's doing. Even if in truth it's not too clear he does.

Robert said...

What you mean is both have a lot to say and nothing to do.

tiasmith123 said...

Yes I am totally agree with you Robert.
Tia Smith
real estate

Robert said...

A yank that agrees with me to flog homes jesus it's getting bad.

Anonymous said...

On another angle, it seems a pity that the Journal seems to be reducing columns like yours....... Par for the course for Trinity Mirror, i guess.

Paul Linford said...

Anonymous 9.55

That's not correct actually. I volunteered to reduce the word count on the column because I was keen for it to appear in the same position in the paper each week, and the only available position entailed a reduction in the word count from around 900 to 700. So yes, the column is shorter, but hopefully there will be no diminution in quality.