Writing on wall for Brown

Brown’s primary objective at Brighton was to present himself as the saviour of capitalism, writes Eddie Ford

“We’re not done yet!” – so proclaimed Gordon Brown at this week’s Labour Party conference. On more than one occasion. Maybe so, but that is not what the latest Mori survey suggests – with the Conservatives on 36%, Labour on 24% and the Liberal Democrats on 25%. This is the first time since 1982 that Labour has come third in such a poll, and all the various other such surveys and polls indicate similar results.

Unfortunately for the Brown team, depressing poll returns are not the only bad omens. Far more significant than Mori’s statistical tea-leaves, The Sun – the newspaper that claimed not entirely without reason to be “wot won it” for John Major in 1992 – has finally deserted Labour and gone back to its natural ideological home, the Tories. So its front-page headline reads: “Labour’s lost it” – and goes on to inform us: “After 12 long years in power, Labour has lost its way and now it has lost us too” (September 30). Cripes, maybe the writing really is on the wall for Labour.

Perhaps naively, home secretary Alan Johnson responded to The Sun’s electoral body blow by saying it was “electors that decide elections, not newspapers” – a sentiment echoed by Brown, who ventured the idea that he would, of course, “like the support of every newspaper”, but it is “people that decide elections”. Very profound. However, the plain fact of the matter is that it is very rare for The Sun not to sniff which way the populist wind is blowing. Hence Rupert Murdoch ruthlessly ditched the Tories in 1997, as he knew they did not have a hope in hell of winning the general election – or as The Sun put it at the time, Blair’s New Labour represented the “breath of fresh air this great country needs” in contrast to the “tired, divided and rudderless” Conservative Party under the final dog days of John Major (March 18 1997).

Similarly, David Cameron – according to George Pascoe-Watson, The Sun’s political editor – is now apparently the man with the “vision, the energy, the drive, the ideas to take the country forward”, and The Sun eagerly anticipates in particular that the Tory leader will “cut away a lot of the red tape which is strangling British business”. As if things were not bad enough, Labour now suddenly finds itself confronted by a formidable and rapacious foe in the shape of the tabloid ‘fourth estate’.

Unsurprisingly then, with Labour facing the very real prospect of a resounding electoral defeat – possibly even a cataclysmic one akin to the victory of the Ramsay MacDonald’s Conservative-National Labour-Liberal coalition when Labour was reduced to a mere 52 seats – morale among the Labour troops is beginning to plummet, even amongst senior apparatchiks within the cabinet. Expressing his frustration with such backsliding elements, the chancellor, Alastair Darling, sharply lambasted his colleagues who appear to have lost the “will to live” – comparing them to a “gutless football side” who have “allowed their heads to drop well before the final whistle”. Instead of indulging in such defeatist sentiments, Darling told The Observer: “We have got to come out fighting” (September 27).

Faced with such extraordinarily unpromising conditions, Brown’s speech this week at Brighton attempted to pull the iron from the fire – though first we had to endure yet another sickly-sweet, lachrymose introduction by his wife, Sarah, who described him, Michelle Obama-style, as “my hero” who “loves his country” and “will always, always, put you first”.

Therefore Brown urged party activists to “reach inside ourselves for the strength of our convictions” and to “dream big dreams and watch our country soar” (a reference to Goethe’s Faust – probably something The Sun missed). As part of this big dreaming, or “vision thing” as a US president once memorably put it, Brown announced a shopping list of new policies, such as: 10 hours of free childcare a week for 250,000 two-year-olds from families “on modest or middle incomes”; a plan to house 16 and 17-year-old single parents in state-run “shared houses” rather than council flats; a £1 billion “innovation fund” to boost industry; a new National Care Service to “provide security for pensioners for generations to come”; a “commitment” to allocate a whopping 0.7% of GDP to international aid; the abandonment of a “compulsory” ID card scheme for British citizens; a pledge to force the courts to issue more Drinking Banning Orders, or ‘drink Asbos’; a draft bill to abolish the remaining unelected Lords before the next general election; proposals to implement a ‘right of recall’ of MPs if more than 25% of their constituents demand one, and – in a move which caught virtually everyone by surprise – casually tossed in a reference to a referendum on “voting reform”.

However, genuine democrats should not get too excited by the latter remark, it does have to be said. Brown’s stated preference, if indeed that is what it is, is for the ‘alternative vote’ method, as used in the Australian House of Representatives – being not a proportional electoral system, but rather a majoritarian one which looks extremely similar to the current ‘first past the post’ mechanism. Indeed, the results produced by an AV system could conceivably be even more distorted, or less democratic, than under FPTP – making electoral life for ‘extreme’ or non-mainstream parties (eg, BNP, Communist Party, etc) just that little bit harder than it already is, and under AV coalition governments composed of mainstream or establishment parties would be no more likely to arise than they are under FPTP. No wonder Brown is prepared, if need be, to accept such a voting system.

Of course, Brown’s primary objective at Brighton was to present himself as the saviour of capitalism – the man of steel who took the lead and made the decisions that had to be made in order to prevent the entire global economic-financial system plunging into the abyss with near unfathomable consequences. Unlike the spineless and irresponsible Tories, Brown implied, who would have let the banks go under due to their dogmatic and selfish adherence to the Thatcherite ideology of ‘never bucking the market’. What “failed” last autumn, he declared to conference cheers, was the “rightwing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market” and “says that free markets should not just be free, but value-free”.

Well, he – Gordon Brown, no less – had no fear to ‘buck the market’ when it came to the crunch and when the Tories “were faced with the economic call of the century”, they “called it wrong”. Wrong, wrong, wrong – and of course Brown got the prolonged ovation he wanted, and needed.

Brown obviously has a point, of course – it would be churlish to say anything else. The Tories’ essentially laissez-faire approach would almost certainly have seen them copy the criminal stupidity of George Bush and ‘do a Lehman’ – that is, petulantly refuse to ‘throw money’ at the problem and thus kick off a domino effect that would have triggered a tsunami throughout the UK’s entire credit-financial system. Whoops apocalypse. After all, the Tories adamantly opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock, so what other measures would they also have opposed?

Furthermore, it is clear – as the financial pages of the newspapers love to point out – that the economy is improving, albeit sluggishly and tenuously. In other words, the economy has stopped going down the plughole quite as fast as it was previously, and in that sense Gordon Brown and the other governments that followed fashion – by massive state intervention in the markets – self-evidently acted in the best immediate and short-term interests of capitalism. The fact that the ‘free market’ system is still with us at all in its current shape and form is testament to that fact, especially when you consider the long-standing and persistent rumours (or leaks) that at one stage last year George Bush was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency – even drawing-up contingency plans for a ‘limited’ period of military rule.

However, having said all that, we can see that increasing swathes of the population are being persuaded to believe that the ‘credit crunch’ and the general economic downturn was Gordon Brown-induced – not an inevitable consequence, or by-product, of the ceaseless ‘boom-and-bust’ cycle of capitalism, regardless of who happens to be sitting in No10.

Worse, the idea that cutting public spending – though, of course, dressed up as being ‘anti-waste’, ‘anti-red tape’ and so on – is the only way out of the mess we are still in, is steadily acquiring the status of ‘common sense’ in official political discourse. Hence all the mainstream parties are now committed to cut-backs and ‘cost reductions’. The only debate – if you can call it that – being about your degree of enthusiasm for a spot of muscular axe-wielding.

Of course, those who argue for the continuation – if not an intensification – of Keynesian stimulation have more than a valid point. Unemployment is still going up and the recovery, such as it is, could easily flounder – and we could find ourselves stuck in a classic ‘W-shaped’ downturn. But such voices will not be heard come the next general election amongst the clamour for cuts, cuts, cuts.

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