Why Gordon Brown should soldier on

I had been almost persuaded by the relentless drum-beat of Guardian editorials and columns that Gordon Brown is finished and should step down now, if only so as not to prolong the party’s and the country’s agony — well, embarrassment, if not agony.  Almost persuaded, but not quite.  Following recent traumatic events — the resignations, the largely involuntary reshuffle, the defiant press conference, the county council election results, the sure prospect of even worse to come in the European parliament elections — I have come to the reluctant conclusion that Gordon should stay on until a general election next year.

I say this out of absolutely no admiration for Brown’s style of government and politics.  The widely reported briefing by the attack dogs working out of No. 10 Downing Street against fellow Labour parliamentarians, including ministers, is scandalous: loyalty should be a two-way street.  The over-reliance for advice on a small coterie of personal and political cronies — Ed Balls prominently among them — is harmful and undemocratic, especially when the prime minister has a huge range of ministers, back-benchers, and above all experienced and savvy civil servants to sound out and listen to.  He sticks doggedly to policies which are heartedly disliked by a large section of the party at the grass roots and probably even in parliament.  He looks and sounds terrible on television and seems unable to present his ideas and policies in a convincing or attractive way.  He allows himself to take the bait at PMQs when Cameron insults and taunts him, losing his temper instead of acting the serious statesman above the party political fray.  I don’t believe that Labour under Brown can win an election, whenever it is held.

In spite of all these negatives, I believe that the balance of advantage for the country, and therefore also for the Labour party, lies in rallying round Gordon Brown and supporting him right up to the spring or early summer of 2010 — even though I don’t believe he can win it for Labour then either.  Here are seven good reasons:

1.  If the party elects a new leader and prime minister now (or very soon), there will be intense pressure for a general election almost immediately.  The country can’t be expected to tolerate a second prime minister who has never led his party to an election victory, or even gone into an election as party leader, but who seems set on occupying Downing Street for nearly another year.

2.  It is neither in the country’s nor in Labour’s interests to have a general election — and a change of government — before there has been a chance to see signs of success for Gordon Brown’s bold and far-sighted measures to minimise the effects of the recession, to help stimulate the economy so that recovery may begin earlier rather than later, and to lead and coordinate corresponding action by much of the rest of the world.  It’s unrealistic to expect that there will be convincing evidence that these measures are succeeding until the end of this year or early next year, at the earliest.  To hold an election before Labour can demonstrate that the government’s anti-recession policies are succeeding is to hand the Tories a golden opportunity to denounce them as financial profligacy, doomed to failure, in contrast to Conservative promises of tough measures to cut “wasteful” government spending (details not specified) and to bring other expenditures back “under control”.

3.  A Tory victory at an early election would mean the new government immediately embarking on savage cuts to government spending even before we begin to recover from the effects of a deflationary recession.  Quite apart from the effects of such cuts on essential public services such as health and education, and on benefits introduced by Labour to help shield the most vulnerable people in society from the effects of the recession, general cuts in government spending while we’re still in the depths of the recession would inevitably delay recovery from it, further aggravate unemployment, prolong the collapse in government revenues caused by the recession and thus bring forward the need for increased taxation — which in turn would further prolong the recession.  Millions would suffer unnecessarily as a result.  Cuts in government spending and increases in taxation are going to be unavoidable sooner or later, whichever party is in power:  the really significant difference between the parties is over the timing.  Labour rightly wants to defer these essentially deflationary measures until we have started to recover from the worst of the recession;  the Tories want to start them immediately — in part, probably, because of their instinctive liking for cuts in spending on public services which the better-off rarely use, and for cutting taxes on the rich.  Economic illiteracy may also play its part.  Anyway, for all our sakes, the measures already taken by the Brown government need and deserve time to work.  The Tories would reverse some and scrap the rest.

4.  An election held before the late autumn (and a change of leader now would probably entail an election in the summer or very early autumn of this year) would almost certainly be won by the Tories, who would accordingly come into power before the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty and therefore before the treaty will have been brought into effect following ratification by all 27 EU governments.  The Tories are firmly committed to holding a referendum on the treaty immediately after winning a general election if the treaty has not yet come into force, and they would undoubtedly act accordingly. Since Britain has already legally ratified the treaty, it’s difficult to see what options could usefully be offered in the referendum except a very vague and general question such as “Do you approve or disapprove of the Lisbon treaty?”  Indeed, the temptation for the Tories to misrepresent the treaty as “the new EU constitution” in the referendum might prove irresistible.  Either way, many voters, perhaps a majority, encouraged by both the government and most of the print and television media, would treat such a referendum as an opportunity to register a vote for or against UK membership of the EU, rather than on the much narrower question of the Lisbon treaty, whatever the precise wording on the ballot papers:  and the outcome could well set in train a series of events culminating in our forced departure from the European Union (as I have argued elsewhere, e.g. here).   The key point is that an unnecessary and divisive referendum on the EU would do even more harm to British interests, and represent an even graver threat to our continuing interests and role in Europe, than a demand by a Tory government, after the Lisbon treaty has been brought into effect, that the treaty should be re-opened and re-negotiated.  Such a demand would win little if any support from our EU partners and with luck would be drowned out by their contemptuous laughter.  This would be humiliating, but not necessarily seriously damaging.  This is a weighty argument for deferring a UK general election until after the second Irish referendum, ratification by the few remaining governments that have not yet completed their ratification processes, and the coming into effect of the treaty.   And deferring the election means not changing the party and national leadership now.

5.  To plunge the Labour party into the all-absorbing arguments and personality competitions of a leadership election, and thus inflict on the country a period of several months of government inactivity and distraction, all at a time of almost unprecedentedly grave national crisis in the worst economic recession for three generations, would both be, and be seen to be, an act of grossly self-indulgent irresponsibility.  There is still a vast amount of day-to-day work to be done in further protecting the poorest from the effects of the recession and speeding up our recovery from it.  This is no time for the government to take time off for a huge internal wrangle over the succession to Gordon Brown.

6.  There is no evidence that Alan Johnson, or any other credible candidate for the succession to Brown, would change existing government policies in any significant way:  no-one who’s in with a chance is offering to scrap part-privatisation of the post office, ID cards, Trident, control orders or the other assaults on our freedoms introduced by successive Labour home secretaries under cover of the “war on terrorism”, so-called;  no-one promises to withdraw from an unwinnable and misconceived conflict in Afghanistan;  no-one has any idea how to answer the West Lothian question or to complete the process of devolution of all domestic powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or to remedy the glaring inconsistency whereby England alone has no parliament or government of its own or to give the second chamber a useful democratic function or to head off the threat of Scottish secession from the United Kingdom or to reverse the poisonous centralising tendencies of all governments for the last 20 years or to revive local government.  Moreover, it’s not as if Alan Johnson, or any other likely candidate to succeed Gordon Brown, appears to possess such magnetic charisma and personal popular electoral appeal as might hold out a hope of reversing the precipitate decline in Labour’s fortunes.  How many UK voters, shown a photograph of Alan Johnson, would be able to put a name to it or him?  A change of leader now would risk being no real change at all either in policies or even of personalities.

7.  The result of an early election — before the autumn, say — would almost certainly be a catastrophic defeat for Labour.  A spring or early summer election in 2010, when with luck the first green shoots of recovery from recession might be starting to show, demonstrating a decent prospect of success for Brown’s economic management of the recession, and when (with even more luck) memories of the MPs’ expenses scandal may have begun to recede with the allowances rules having been drastically reformed, might hold out the prospect of a reasonable performance by Labour, even if the Tories (as seems likely) still won it.  The more Labour MPs and candidates manage to survive the next election, the greater the chances of a reasonably early recovery by the party in opposition.  And that means an election later rather than sooner.

Seven powerful reasons for letting Gordon soldier on until towards the middle of next year, and closing ranks now to give him united support in the meantime, whatever one’s private reservations about some of his policy intentions and personality traits.  Not everyone will agree with all seven.  But it’s hard, surely, to dismiss them all.  Can anyone really suggest seven cogent reasons for plunging into a leadership contest now without risking any of the harmful consequences described above?

Brian

11 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    Well, democracy might have been the least worst system of government up to now, but if the  Labour Party agitators of the Get-Gordon hit squad manage to impose it on the party after the Euro-results, that really will be democracy as a new worst system…
    Brian, I share your reservations about GB as a person, as a manager of others and as a PM. And I strongly regret having ever believed that somewhere inside that awkward exterior there lurked a real socialist waiting to get out. (Yes, silly wasn’t it? Wasn’t his clinging to PFI enough evidence alone to the contrary?) But I suppose many of us on the left felt that part of his loathing for Blair – apart from the obvious, long-standing reason – might have been because he knew Blair was a charlatan, a snake oil salesman with no socialist convictions of any sort to match his own. Well, he’s had opportunity enough to come out against Trident renewal, PO privatisation, ID cards, faith schools and much else that characterised the Blair regime – and has done absolutely nothing to hearten labour grassroots. But for all the very good reasons you give – and I grind the words out – it’s gotta be him till the lights (probably) go out for labour next year! Because by then, as you say, we shall hopefully have got into a substantially better economic situation than at we’re in at present, and an undeserved, unearned Cameron victory won’t be as substantial as it would be if the assassins were to impose a new labour leader and therefore an election on the country right now – or very shortly.
    And there is one possibly optimistic point to add: with the notable exceptions of Peter Mandelson and David Miliband there has been a substantial clear-out of (back-stabbing?) Blairites from both government and cabinet.  Thank goodness we’ve seen the last, for example, of  the irksome head-nodding Blears and the blandly irritating Buff Hoon. And I’m glad to see Peter Hain back, but sorry Michael Meacher isn’t. (Brown needs centre-left personalities with weight and experience and can’t afford to waste a single one who would be willing to serve under him.) And a welcome to Sadiq Khan as a transport minister, if rumours are true. In other words I think, without knowing all the participants, that this new Brown government could be a stronger, more unified one than last week’s! And, as you say, if he hangs on long enough and signs of economic recovery are spotted, our a-political populace (‘I’m going to give the lady a chance this time…’) could easily swing back behind him, where many foreign governments always have been. It’s the Brown-Blair conundrum again. Americans couldn’t believe how the lovely Tony was loathed by most of his own party and, eventually, people! Now they look on amazed at a world economic figure (they say) being berated and insulted by his own people.
    So for their sake and ours, you’re right. Gordon has to stay.

    Brian writes: Yep. Them’s my sentiments, pretty well exactly. (And to the epithets you apply to T Blair you might have added “war criminal”.)

  2. David Price says:

    Brian –
    Many thanks for flagging these reasons on Paul’s post on CommonEndeavour.org.

    I have had a first pass at representing them on The Independent’s debate map here (and please don’t hesitate to suggest or make any further changes):
    http://debategraph.org/flash/fv_indep.aspx?r=18241
    Incidentally, which of the reasons do you find most compelling?
    David

    Brian writes: Thanks for this, David. I have enjoyed chasing the balloons on your ingenious debate map. The only comment I would make on it concerns one of the reasons for believing that an early Tory election victory would be a disaster for the country because Tory policy on Europe “would destabilise the EU”. I think it’s more that Tory actions in Europe would severely damage Britain’s influence in the EU, and thereby also damage our ability to defend and promote our national interests in Europe (and our national interest includes a strong, united and internationally effective EU). If the Tories, once in office at Westminster, go ahead with their plan to desert the present mainstream centre-right group in the EP for a new rag-bag of right-wing weirdos and extremists — and they are clearly determined to do so — they will alienate their main potential allies (Merkel, Sarkozy, and others) and find it very difficult to assemble a consensus for their point of view. And if they pursue their absurd policy of trying to re-open and re-negotiate the Lisbon treaty when all the other EU governments approve of it, want to bring it into force and move on, they will achieve nothing except to ensure that no-one who carries any weight in the EU will take them seriously. I doubt if either of these follies would actually ‘destabilise’ the EU, as the debate map suggests, but they might well destabilise our role in Europe!

    I suppose I would regard my points 2, 3 and 4 as the most compelling, and equally so.

  3. Bob says:

    PS to my piece above, admittedly exclusively Labour Party orientated; but those are my politics –  labour, as in socialist. I have therefore despaired of the pseudo-party which stole our name in the 90s and of most of its free-market economic policies. (It has driven thousands like me to abandon political activity for the first time in decades, causing us to sit on our hands rather than work for the NuLabour charlatans or vote for other parties.)
    So I should have added that much as I have despaired of NuLabour, I have no illusions about the reality of a tory government and a cabinet with Cameron at the helm and eight Old Etonians in it, most of them totally untried politically, straining at the leash to slash taxes and therefore public expenditure (on state schools, NHS hospitals, etc) and eager to keep island UK as safe as possible from European meddling. When I think of those guys running the country, I think Come on Gordon, for goodness sake! Think and act! All it would need would be for him to declare the Post Office inviolable (pace his new best friend Lord M who wants to violate it wantonly…) ban ID cards and the creation of more faith schools, and declare an end to PFI. Then not only labour folk, but ordinary voters of all colours would magically revert to support him again, like they did when he first got stuck into the banking crisis. He’d have a bit of fiscal manipulation to do, but isn’t that what he’s good at? I don’t think Gordon even suspects how easily things could fall into place if only he’d do what ordinary people want. I even wonder if he understands that most people are ordinary anyway, regardless of how they vote, and that they just want a government that provides the essentials in life – like good free local schools, efficient NHS hospitals, and fairly priced transport, utilities and postal service. Basic Labour Party policies, in fact.

  4. John Miles says:

    Mr Brown seems to think we’d never forgive him if he “walked away” from us in our hour of need.
    Can’t the poor man see that most of us WANT him to walk away, and the sooner the better.
    How can we make it any plainer?
    John Miles

    Brian writes: May we know, John, which of my seven arguments for Gordon Brown to stay on you disagree with, and why? Simply stating the opposite and asserting, whether or not correctly, that “most of us” — whoever ‘us’ is — want him to go, is a little low on value-added, don’t you think?

  5. Brian says:

    “In the key argument made for shoring up Brown, Mandelson said: “If we were to have a third leader in a single parliament it would mean an irresistible argument for an immediate election.”

    One cabinet member predicted Brown would survive saying it would not be a vote of confidence in the prime minister, but a vote on no confidence in the consequences of getting rid of him.
    Guardian, 8 June 2009 (emphasis added)

    Compare:

    I believe that the balance of advantage for the country, and therefore also for the Labour party, lies in rallying round Gordon Brown and supporting him right up to the spring or early summer of 2010 …  Here are seven good reasons:

    1.  If the party elects a new leader and prime minister now (or very soon), there will be intense pressure for a general election almost immediately.  The country can’t be expected to tolerate a second prime minister who has never led his party to an election victory, or even gone into an election as party leader, but who seems set on occupying Downing Street for nearly another year.

    2.  It is neither in the country’s nor in Labour’s interests to have a general election — and a change of government — before there has been a chance to see signs of success for Gordon Brown’s bold and far-sighted measures to minimise the effects of the recession, to help stimulate the economy so that recovery may begin earlier rather than later, and to lead and coordinate corresponding action by much of the rest of the world. …
    Ephems blog post (above), 6 June 2009: http://www.barder.com/ephems/1790

     

  6. David Price says:

    Brian –

    Thanks for the feedback and for the very helpful clarification. I have had a second pass at reflecting the clarification on the map here:

    http://debategraph.org/flash/fv_indep.aspx?r=19616

    I suspect that there’s further scope for refinement though; so please don’t hesitate to suggest any further changes.

    David

  7. John Miles says:

    I don’t disagree with any of your arguments, or not  that much anyway.
    I just think they’re not relevant to what happens next 
    As you seem to suggest, perhaps “most of us” really want him to stay.
    If so, it’s a funny way of showing it.

  8. Peter Harvey says:

    It’s not exactly a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with your arguments; all except numbers 3 and 4 are in fact to do with the internal problems of the Labour Party and the effect that its stunning political incompetence has had on the country. Whether in the circumstances there should be a change of party leader is obviously a matter for the party, but whether the circumstances require a change of Prime Minister and of ruling party is a matter for the country as a whole, and it is quite reasonable for the large majority of British people who do not have, and never have had, time or sympathy for the Labour Party to dismiss most of what you say as irrelevant.

    As for point 3, if the country is not to be totally bankrupted after twelve years of Labour misrule there must be major cuts. There may be arguments and disagreements as to where they should fall (though I wouldn’t put a bent ha’penny on the warmongering, USA-client Labour Party scrapping Trident or an aircraft carrier). And if Labour says that it will not make severe cuts in public expenditure, it is either lying or admitting that it will not be in a position in a year’s time to have to do so.

    Point 4, yes I agree. The timing on this one is, for me, the only reason why the UK should not get rid of Labour right now and have a general election as soon as possible.

    The Tories are not pleasant but they would just be unpleasant in a different way from Labour. For all my adult life, as a left-leaning Liberal, I have despite everything had a preference for Labour over the Tories if it ever came to a straight choice; I was delighted with the 1997 election result. But things have changed, and my view has changed too. What if Jones does come back? Standing outside I look from Labour to Tory, and from Tory to Labour, and from Labour to Tory again; but already it is impossible to say which is which.

    Brian writes: As you would expect, Peter, I disagree fundamentally with most of the assumptions underlying your comments. I reply on just two of them.

    Obviously the issue under discussion — whether the Labour Party should get rid of Gordon Brown and replace him with a new leader — is “to do with the internal problems of the Labour Party”, as you put it; but since a new party leader also means a new prime minister, it is equally obviously a matter of concern to the whole country and to all who wish Britain well; so none of my seven arguments can be said to be “irrelevant” to those who don’t support the Labour Party. Nor would you expect me to agree that the issue is solely, or indeed at all, related to “the effect that [Labour’s] stunning political incompetence has had on the country”, a casual condemnation that has little meaning unless you disclose what examples of political incompetence you have in mind (no, not here, thanks: totally off topic). Winning three general elections in a row doesn’t, on the face of it, look much like stunning political incompetence, in my book anyway.

    The other one of my many disagreements with your comment concerns your assertion that “if the country is not to be totally bankrupted after twelve years of Labour misrule there must be major cuts.” This comes in the category of “When did you stop beating your wife?” questions — unanswerable without challenging the premiss. The reason that “cuts” (and tax increases, which you don’t mention) will eventually be necessary is solely that there have been absolutely essential increases in government spending in the past few months, on an unprecedented scale, first on bailing out the banks to keep the banking system just about alive, and then on providing a huge fiscal stimulus to prevent national and global recession turning into slump. On top of these, government finances have been hard hit by the sharp reduction in tax revenues caused by the recession and the equally sharp increase in government expenditure on (e.g.) unemployment benefit required by the steep rise in unemployment due to the recession, and other spending needed to protect the most vulnerable from the worst effects of the recession — the so-called automatic stabilisers. You know as well as I do that none of this has anything to do with “twelve years of Labour misrule”; it mirrors fairly exactly the experience of virtually every other developed economy.

    Nor is it the case that Britain was worse placed than others to cope with the demands of the recession as we went into it: see, for example, the comparative figures on national debt in this earlier post of mine. Whatever you might think of Gordon Brown’s personality and methods of political management, you will have your work cut out to show that he was an unsuccessful or imprudent Chancellor, or that his response to the banking crisis and the virtual collapse of the global economy which it triggered has been anything other than prompt, far-sighted and courageous — more so than that of any other major government leader. To attribute the medium-term consequences of what almost everyone agrees had to be done — a severe fiscal tightening that will need to include sharp cuts in government spending and increases in selective taxes — to “twelve years of Labour misrule” suggests gut prejudice and partisanship (or a compulsion to condemn indiscriminately every aspect of contemporary Britain) rather than the product of serious analysis.

    As you appear to accept my conclusion on the basis of your agreement with two of my seven points, it does seem disappointingly perverse for you to comment so negatively overall. We have known for a good many years now about the wide areas in which we fundamentally disagree: let’s focus now, anyway in this forum, on the quite significant remaining areas on which we usually see eye-to-eye. Parts of this post are good examples.

  9. John Miles says:

    Thank you, Peter, for your comment, “it is quite reasonable for the large majority of British people who do not have, and never have had, time or sympathy for the Labour Party to dismiss most of what you say as irrelevant.”
    What you say also goes for people like me – long-time Labour supporters.
    “Old” Labour, that is to say.

    Brian writes: Irrelevant to what? Irrelevant to whom? Irrelevant to those who will lose their homes or their jobs, or both, if a party comes to power, or continues in power, that seeks to get to grips with the recession and gets it wrong? Irrelevant to those whose jobs will disappear from under them if Britain is forced out of the EU and finds that it’s excluded from contributing to decisions which mean that the companies that employ them can’t compete with those who have stayed on the inside? A bit late then to wish they had sat up and taken an interest in politics when it was still possible to make choices. “Those politicians, they’re all the same — nothing to tell them apart!” Too easy. Too lazy.

  10. John Miles says:

    I’lll do my best to answer your questions:

    Irrelevant to what?
    To what happens next.
    We’ve just had two lots of elections, and the message is far from palatable.
    We’re stuck with a lame-duck government and a lame-duck prime minister; to put it crudely, with a government most of us no longer support and a prime minister many of us actually despise.
    Hardly a recipe for good government.
    Just about the best they can hope for is to lurch from crisis to crisis till they get their final come- uppance at a general election.

    Irrelevant to whom?
    To me, for starters.
    Just me?
    Well, possibly I suppose, but probably not.
    I’ve had enough of New Labour, and feel – perhaps wrongly – that no change could make things any worse.
    Even if you were to come up with good arguments until seventy times seven, I can’t see them changing my mind.
    Do you honestly think there’s any chance of the electorate ever deciding to support this government again?

    Irrelevant to those who will lose their homes or their jobs, or both, if a party comes to power, or continues in power, that seeks to get to grips with the recession and gets it wrong?
    Yes, very likely.
    There are bad times ahead, obviously, but will it really make much difference who’s actually in office?
    If one party gets in we’re told there’ll be “savage cuts.”
    If another, we can expect “tough choices” and “difficult decisions,” together with a load of old cobblers about how it’s the mark of a good government, in times of “unprecedented global crisis” – ie a slump – to be flexible about honouring its commitments.
    Irrelevant to those whose jobs will disappear from under them if Britain is forced out of the EU and finds that it’s excluded from contributing to decisions which mean that the companies that employ them can’t compete with those who have stayed on the inside?
    Not too sure, but I’m inclined to think so
    Of course you may be right, but I think you may be just a little bit simplistically, dogmatically doom and gloomy.
    I didn’t vote Ukip myself, but quite a few did.
    Presumably not many of them think as you do.
    Anyway, them’s my sentlements.
    I don’t expect you – or anybody else – to agree with them, but I like to think they’re not complete rubbish.
    If they are, please straighten me out! 

    Brian writes: John, thank you once again. I certainly don’t suggest that your sentiments are ‘complete rubbish’, but since they seem to reflect a mistaken belief that there are no differences between the policies, programmes, commitments and philosophies of the two major parties, or at any rate no differences of a kind likely to affect ordinary people’s day-to-day lives, obviously I don’t agree with them.

  11. John Miles says:

    My “mistaken belief ” is not that there are no differences in the salesmanship dished out by these two parties, but that the differences in the actual results are pretty minuscule, and seldom do New Labour much credit.
    I grant you they’ve done one or two good things, but not nearly enough.
    For example, the gap between the rich and the poor keeps on growing; and the old age pensioner is hardly, if at all, better off than he was under MrsT.

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