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The man who would be

Poor judgement and pipedreams characterise the view of many on the left to a Brown succession argues Don Flynn

The weeks are going by and the sense of what it means to be living under the ‘dual premiership’ proclaimed by Charles Clarke back at the end of February remains as obscure as ever.

The Home Secretary probably thought he was helping to fill in the fault lines in New Labour which continue to threaten the stability of the project. What could be more sensible than inviting both chaps to step forward and set out the range of policies that they think should form the heart of the next period of government? Minds would be concentrated on issues rather than personal grudges, and we’d all benefit from the clarification about what the really important lessons of New Labour rule have been to date.

That seems to be the spirit Gordon Brown has taken the injunction and the months of March and April have seen the Chancellor straying into policy areas far from fiscal rectitude in an effort to explain what he stands for in the hurly burly of modern politics. Blair’s team have been less than enthusiastic to respond in similar ways, for the obvious reason that a debate about values and direction can only strengthen the feeling so widely evident, that most of us feel that what is currently on offer really isn’t good enough.

Brown has an even more difficult circle to square. Believing that it is only a matter of time before he mounts the throne he has to think about the political conditions that will prevail once he is ensconced. If he contributes to an acrimonious unseating of Blair he fears that he will inherit a divided power base in the parliamentary party, with a sizeable faction of its most prominent personalities embittered by the experience of the in-fighting, and already looking to the period beyond the general election of 2009 for the next new leader.

It therefore suits Brown to stand above the dirty business of the fight, leaving that to his lieutenants, and to concentrate instead on the business of setting out policies which essentially establish the continuity of his own thinking with Blairite New Labour, but with a special shine on the bits and pieces to which he feels he can make an original contribution.

But can anything be deduced even from this fare that gives us a better sense of what a Brownite Labour government would look like? The image he attempts to project is that of a politician more committed to the party out in the country than the current boss, and who values the social democratic emphasis on consensus-building across all the component parts of the labour movement. In seeking this tone he hopes that trades union leaders will be so desperate to reconstruct the ‘beer and sandwiches’ culture of deal-doing that they will be prepared to accept even his strident advocacy of PFI marketisation of the public sector as something they can live with.

The appeal of backing who everyone expects to be winner should not be underestimated, and it might be the case that the union barons will deliver a period of peaceful co-existence to a Brown premiership and suppress dissent over public sector jobs shake-out and the hiving off of services which have profit-making potential for private investors. But the interesting bets are generally against favourites. The immensity of the problem of selling worsening conditions of employment to workers at a time when the public perception of declining quality of services is more widespread should not be underestimated.

Brown trades heavily on his apparent competence in the management of the British economy, something that continues to earn him merit marks with a large section of the mainstream left. This is in itself a profound comment on the left’s poor judgment. Decades of anxious self-doubt have conditioned the Labour party to expect only the worst when it comes to running the economy and the sight of one of its own maintaining a steady course of respectable growth exceeds many of the wildest dreams. The prospect of fighting a fourth general election in a row with something still resembling buoyancy will incline many to overlook the fact that Brown’s strategy has been to nurture an economy of bubbles which depends as a condition of its existence on unsustainable levels of indebtedness.

These achievements look good only by the comparison that Brown is keen we should be continually making, with the alleged low level of performance of the other major European economies. Yet this seems increasingly fallacious.

As the evidence of a new phase of upswing across Europe mounts it will become clearer that even relatively low growth countries like Germany and France have maintained a more diverse manufacturing base, higher levels of productivity, and a better infrastructure than Britain during the whole period of a Labour government.

So what else is in the Brown cupboard? There is liberal concern with poverty in Africa which engenders headline catching initiatives aimed at accomplishing worthy objectives within specified time frames; yet all of this is supposed to happen by promoting the very forms of globalisation which mired the region into a state of scarcely unrelieved destitution in the first place. Similar things can be said about over-smart plans to raise the living standards of the poorest groups in British society as well, as the evidence from poorly designed tax credit schemes and means-tested pensions demonstrates.

It is hard to imagine that any of this provides the basis for centre-left government after Blair: and yet the centre-left continues to dream. Brown’s recent appearance as star speaker at a Fabian conference back in January was the occasion for a speech of almost unbelievable ineptitude about the scope for using ‘Britishness’ as a platform for a new progressive consensus.

A cascading mush of reflections about the ‘golden thread’ which runs through British society’ segued into claims that patriotism sustains the arguments of the left and will lead to the banishment of even the BNP.

This is the stall Gordon Brown has set out to date and it hard to see how it could be honestly represented as a programme for reform, challenging the inequalities of wealth and power in Britain in the world today. A Labour Party led by Brown would no more advance the left’s case for radical reform than Blair has done during all his years of government. The claim that he would at least be a social democratic only appeals if you think that the social democracy of Harold Wilson or James Callaghan retains charms enough to pilot the way into new regions of egalitarian transformation.

The left is bound to be interested in Gordon Brown as a politician and as, probably but not certainly, the next leader of the Labour party, it should closely scrutinise his speeches and actions to see what they mean for the politics of a post-Blair period. But that is the limit of their interest.

Outside of this the democratic left should pay more attention to clarifying its own analysis of the key issues in contemporary politics and to thinking through the strategies that will re-establish their influence amongst working class people across the UK. The attempt to present Gordon Brown as a surrogate for thinking and activity that will lead to democratic reform can only be the grossest of self-delusions.