by Michael Faulkner
April 20, 2008
It is difficult to believe that less than ten months ago Gordon Brown, then newly arrived in Downing Street, enjoyed a ten point lead over the Tories in the polls and was widely praised for his decisiveness and firm grip on the reins of government. As I wrote in these columns at the time, the popularity he enjoyed had a lot to do with the fact that he was not Blair. But his management of the two dramatic events that broke during the early days of his premiership – widespread flooding and two attempted terrorist attacks – contributed to the impression of a man who kept a cool head and quietly got on with the job in hand. That has all changed.
One of the most recent opinion polls records the biggest drop in a prime minister’s ratings since 1940, when, in May of that year, after the fall of Norway to the Nazis, the country and parliament turned decisively against Neville Chamberlain. He was compelled to resign, and as everyone knows, was replaced as prime minister by Churchill. While the historical parallel is rather flimsy, I am nevertheless reminded of the famous limerick that did the rounds in Whitehall during that grim spring of 1940:
An elderly statesman with gout,
When asked what the war was about,
In a Written Reply
Said, ‘My colleagues and I
Are doing our best to find out’.
Britain today is not in the dire straits it was in 1940, but with the threat of full-blown recession looming, the government’s reputation for competent management of the economy lies in tatters. Brown’s popularity has nosedived. An atmosphere of resignation and despair pervades the Labour back benches and there are no signs of the gloom lifting. During the final years of the last Tory government led by John Major in the 1990s, the Labour opposition consistently polled above 40 per cent, which, in Britain’s electoral system is what is needed to win an overall majority in a general election. Now the Tories are polling above 40 per cent. Labour is on its lowest poll ratings since the early 1980s, when, following its defeat in the 1983 election, the party was widely written off as unelectable. It is too early to say what may happen in a general election which could still be two years away, but the signs are not hopeful. In the local government elections due next month the Labour Party is certain to do very badly. What is less certain is how Brown’s unpopularity is likely to affect the election for London’s mayor, which will take place on May 1st. More on this later.
As I have argued consistently in these columns, the New Labour project, launched by Blair and Brown in the mid nineties, was intended to dismantle the Labour Party as a party of social democracy. In this they have succeeded. Under Blair’s leadership the onslaught on the public sector of the economy, involving the extension of privatization beyond anything attempted by the Tories, was presented as ‘modernisation’ and ‘reform’. This neo-liberal agenda was accompanied by propaganda against its critics on the left, damning them as ‘conservatives’ and ‘antediluvians’. Many hoped that Brown would make a clean break with his predecessor, work to restore the Labour Party as a party of social democratic reform and breathe new life into a government that had so badly disappointed those who had voted for it. To those less familiar with the peculiarities of British party politics, it needs to be stressed that the majority of New Labour’s critics in recent years are not particularly left wing. Many of the critics might be described as Fabians – believers in gradual reform, healthy municipal government and a more equitable distribution of wealth through a progressive taxation system. It is such people, inside and outside the Labour Party, who have been so dismayed and angered by Gordon Brown’s failure to take even the smallest step on this road.
One of the most principled and articulate of the social democratic critics is Polly Toynbee. She has an unequalled record as a champion of women’s rights and as a campaigner on behalf of the low paid. In a recent article (The Guardian. April 18.), she writes that ‘If a Martian taxman landed now, he’d never guess Labour was in power.’ The government recently abolished the 10p starting rate for income tax, leaving the poorest sections of society worse off. This has outraged not only those directly affected but many Labour MPs, 70 of whom have signed House of Commons motions protesting the abolition. At a recent meeting with the parliamentary party, Brown was apparently torn apart by outraged back benchers. Toynbee also pinpoints the moment last year when Brown surrendered the last of Labour’s progressive taxation principles to the Tories. When the Tories announced their intention of raising the threshold for inheritance tax on domestic properties to £1m, Brown panicked and promised to raise the threshold to £700,000. Toynbee comments pointedly: ’The pieties of equal opportunities for all children were forgotten in a moment of panic: birth has become destiny more certainly than ever, and Labour has helped strangle a mechanism that spread wealth more fairly…..The young have never heard any politician explain what progressive tax is for – the word redistribution being unheard in the lexicon of modern politicians.’ This was the point at which the expected election was also cancelled. It marked the end of Brown’s honeymoon with the electorate.
Brown’s reaction when in a hole seems to be to dig deeper. He is apparently determined to face down his Labour critics. In this display of stubbornness he seems to wish to emulate Blair. A parliamentary private secretary at the Treasury, Angela Smith, announced a few days ago her intention to resign over the abolition of the 10p tax rate. Brown apparently called her from the US to warn her off. She immediately withdrew her threatened resignation, commenting: ‘I am assured that my concerns are understood.’ Such episodes were not uncommon during Blair’s premiership. The threat that rebellion will play into the hands of the Tories usually does the trick in persuading those concerned for their jobs to think again.
In case TPJ readers failed to notice it, I should mention that our prime minister has recently been in the United States. In arranging his visit, Downing Street apparently failed to notice that Pope Benedict would be in Washington at the same time. Needless to say, the 21 gun salute on the White House Lawn was not for Gordon Brown. Nevertheless, everyone – Brown, Bush, Clinton, McCain and Obama extolled the value of the ‘special relationship’ – although apparently, when asked recently about its value, Bush failed to mention Gordon Brown, referring only to Churchill and Blair. Perhaps these are the only two British politicians whose names he can recall without prompting. Whatever may be the present or future nature of the ‘special relationship’ Brown’s visit to Washington, New York and Boston will do nothing to help his standing with the electorate here. A fairly reliable indicator of the likely outcome of the next general election will be seen in the forthcoming local government and London mayoral elections due in May.
The London Mayoral Campaign Re-visited.
Brown recently endorsed the incumbent, Ken Livingstone, as Labour’s official candidate in the mayoral election. In my last column I expressed the view that there had been a malicious campaign, amounting to a witch hunt, orchestrated by sections of the right wing press, against Livingstone in support of the right wing Tory candidate, Boris Johnson. This has intensified in the past two weeks. I was mistaken in assuming that there would be no interest in the United States in this election. Last week a well informed article appeared in the New Yorker, which mentioned an aspect of the campaign I had intended to touch on in my column.
Behind Johnson’s campaign is a shadowy Australian, Lynton Crosby. Crosby masterminded three consecutive election victories for John Howard’s Conservatives. He has been called Australia’s Karl Rove. His strategy seems to involve keeping the gaffe-prone Johnson away from any potentially embarrassing situations, such as debates with Livingstone and other candidates, and concentrating instead on arranged set pieces in front of hand-picked sympathetic audiences. It has been suggested that Crosby virtually holds a gun to Johnson’s head to prevent him from making a fool of himself – something he is prone to do. The latest in the line of dirty tricks against Livingstone is a press claim that his election campaign team is run by an Islamist who may be soft on terror. This gives a flavour of what to expect in the lead up to May 1st. In my last column I wrote that, in my view Livingstone made a mistake in 2004 when he re-joined the Labour Party. He would, I thought, have won by a bigger margin if he had stood again as an independent. Now, as Labour’s official candidate, he has been photographed with Gordon Brown. Interestingly though, his campaign publicity studiously avoids the term ‘Labour’. Brown knows that if Johnson wins the London mayoralty for the Tories, it will give them a springboard for the general election. I would only add that it could also be the green light for Cameron to abandon any pretence of ‘compassionate Conservatism’. Johnson is an unreconstructed right-winger and a racist to boot. Such an outcome would be little short of catastrophic for a great, cosmopolitan metropolis like London.
TPJ is not subject to copyright. Anyone is welcome to freely quote and use material from TPJ. In reproducing or using material from the TPJ proper attribution is appreciated.