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Gordon Brown's first 100 days

Peter Kenyon asks, Are you listening, Mr Brown?

Appearance rules. By the end of the British political party conference season on 5 October 2007, Gordon Brown will have been Prime Minister for 100 days. The Labour Party under his leadership has enjoyed a remarkable recovery in the public opinion polls. A Tory 10-point lead was reversed in less than 50 days. Activists are being mobilised for a possible early General Election.

Meanwhile, as the tabloid press continually reminds its mass circulation readership, on the streets of inner cities teenagers are being gunned down or stabbed to death. The gutters of British towns and cities flow with vomit. Pavements are littered with binge-drinking, brawling youths. Feral children terrorise the old and infirm. Public spirited challengers to anti-social behaviour risk life and limb. There is a lack of sense of ownership and responsibility.

Gambling

Brown and his advisors are still gambling their political futures on the fickle nature of such media-led public opinion. Little thought or consideration has been given to winning back durable support for Labour through the Party itself. Pro-Brown rich people are still seen as the means of paying for the next British General Election, while the Party struggles to pay off the £25 million debt mountain left by Tony Blair. Lurking in the background is Hayden Phillips, whose mandate to find a way of milking British taxpayers to pay more towards the country's political parties has been extended to October.

From Day 1, Brown has sought to show how Labour under his leadership is going to tackle the symptoms of Britain's social, economic and political ills that democratic socialist ideology suggests should be Labour's stock in trade. In his solitary remarks to the media in Downing Street on 27 June 2007 after returning from Buckingham Palace, he sought to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Tony Blair, without disavowing previous policy. It was the “elegant succession” sought by former Labour MP, Clare Short in her resignation speech from the Cabinet back in 2003 after Blair took Britain to war against Iraq. Within 48 hours bungled terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow provided the real test of leadership that events impose on all politicians. Brown and his newly appointed Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, conveyed authority and calm. So it has continued to prove through floods, stock market turmoil and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Surrey. The electorate has confidence in Brown, while both the Tory and Lib-Dem leaders, David Cameron and Sir Menzies Campbell are suffering their worst confidence ratings since being elected leaders of their respective parties in swift succession 21 months ago.

By Day 100, we will know whether any lessons have been learned by Brown about how to convert mastery of the media into galvanising interest in political transformation. The options are a democratic socialist process or reliance on command and control. Evidence to date is not encouraging.

His first act as Leader of the Labour Party on 24 June 2007 was to table a 12-page document entitled 'Extending and renewing party democracy' at a Labour Party National Executive Committee meeting. It was held in Manchester at the Special Conference to formally elect him leader and hear the results of the Deputy Leadership ballot. He apologised for the absence of prior discussion claiming lack of opportunity. But like rabbits caught in the headlights, the NEC welcomed his initiative and agreed to it being put out to consultation in the Party ahead of the 2007 Annual Conference, without any meaningful discussion.

Interpretation

Reaction inside the Party was swift. The self-appointed LabOUR Commission, in which I declare an interest as its Clerk and as Chair of Save the Labour Party, met two days later initially to discuss the implications of its chair, Angela Eagle MP, being invited to join the new Brown government. The Brown proposals dominated discussion. The new Leader's interest in renewal was welcomed. Caution was expressed about the specifics. One interpretation is that Proposal 5 is actually a Conference gagging device. It states:

Proposal 5: A new contemporary issues process through which party units would be able to submit issues, following proper consultation, for consideration in the priorities ballot at Annual Conference. Each issue that succeeds in the ballot will be debated at Conference and be included in a work programme in the relevant policy commission.

What is clear is that hopes that Brown was taking notice of the LabOUR Commission's recommendations in its Interim Report: Renewal – a two-way process for the 21st century published on 3 May 2007 appear to have been misplaced.

Brown's proposals reflect an apparent obsession with the appearance of dissent at Party Conference, not extending and renewing party democracy, let alone the underlying issues that have given rise to divisions between Labour in government and Annual Conference. Further cause for concern was evidenced in his announcement that he was appointing Harriet Harman, who had just won the Deputy Leadership in an election, as Party Chair, together with no less than six Party vice-chairs. The Command Party practices continued to flow in the appointment of the three Government's representatives to the Labour Party National Executive Committee. Angela Eagle herself had proposed to the LabOUR Commission that it should recommend election by the payroll vote, as set out in Recommendation 9 on page 49. No sooner in government, she accepted through Brown's patronage, to remain on the NEC.

Indicator

This is not intended as personal criticism, but as an indicator of just how far removed Labour's new Leader is from the political realities as seen by a broadly representative group of Labour Party members. None of Brown's actions to date will have come as any surprise to those who have been reading the spate of biographies that have been published in anticipation of his appointment as Prime Minister. Brown's towering ambition, and ruthless determination to finally secure that position is chronicled in frightening terms by Tom Bower. Francis Beckett paints a more congenial character in his account. Anthony Giddens title says it all about his view of politics – Over To You, Mr Brown.

That is the problem facing Labour. Its new Leader is good at appearances. His transformation of Labour as a safe pair of hands with the economy to the deteriment of its main political opponents is of major historic significance. The Party knows it. It does not want a public row over process. As Professor Gerry Stoker wrote in Prospect in January 2006: “Achieving mass democracy was the great triumph of the 20th century. Learning to live with it will be the great achievement of the 21st century”.

For Gordon Brown the opportunity knocks. Nowhere is that more evident than in his own country, Scotland. At the time of writing the Scottish Labour Party is locked into a Leadership election process that shows all the signs of turning into another Labour leadership coronation, with former minister Wendy Alexander as the only member of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour confident of securing the minimum number of six nominations from her Scottish Parliamentary colleagues to be guaranteed a place on the ballot paper.

Whatever the outcome of the Scottish Labour Party leadership contest, election or coronation, the issue of party renewal in Scotland is critical not just to a revival of Labour's fortunes north of the border, but its prospects in the next General Election. If it turns out there is a proper election campaign, that could be the first sign of listening on the part of the machine politicians that surround Brown nationally, led by none other that Wendy's brother, Douglas. He has already been appointed by Brown as his election strategy coordinator, another decision sprung on the hapless members of Labour's National Executive Committee, in addition to Alexander's responsibilities as the new International Development Secretary in Brown's cabinet.

Electoral boundary changes and Labour's loss of control of the Scottish Parliament by one seat do not make comfortable reading for either Brown or his election strategist planning a 4th term in Westminster, despite the bounce in national opinion polls in Labour's favour. Labour Party morale has been revived by Brown's handling of the country since taking office as Prime Minister. But there is little sign of that being converted into a sustained growth in Party membership or activism. The British Labour Leader and Deputy election contest encouraged some to rejoin. But membership in 2006 fell to 182,370 or by eight per cent, the eleventh successive annual fall. Retention and recruitment remain challenges still to be addressed.

Patronage

Brown is firmly focussed on continuing to exercise patronage with Ed Miliband, appointed as Manifesto supremo, in addition to his duties as Minister for the Cabinet and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In August, news was announced of the appointment by the Labour Party of former Blair advisor, Jon Mendelsohn of LLM Communications as Director of Election Resources. He will deal with improving the party's finances, membership and organisation. This is an unpaid post and Mendelsohn is severing his connections with LLM's clients. There was no equal opportunities process, nor active involvement on the part of the NEC. Its Business Board was simply advised of the appointment. As one NEC member told me by way of consolation: “At least we were informed, we were never even told about Lord Levy's role by Blair.” The appearance is one of greater propriety.

As to the substance, Brown has all to play for in the run up to Conference and thereafter. Just a moment's reflection is needed about the state of the Scottish Labour Party on the ground and how public opinion is to be won back there to avoid a fracturing of the Union, and renew Labour as a democractic socialist force in British politics. It will not be achieved by more of the same New Labour Command Party tactics. Are you listening, Mr Brown?

Books reviewed:
Gordon Brown Prime Minister, Gordon Brown's first 100 days, Tom Bower (HarperPerennial, £8.99 pbk)
Gordon Brown, Francis Beckett (Haus Publishing, £10.99 pbk)
Over to you, Mr Brown: How Labour can win again, Anthony Giddens (Polity Press, £9.99 pbk)