The Second Coming: As Tony Blair Departs, Gordon Brown Will Launch a Plan to Transform Labour's Style through Constitutional Change and "Empathy". Martin Bright Reports

By Bright, Martin | New Statesman (1996), May 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Second Coming: As Tony Blair Departs, Gordon Brown Will Launch a Plan to Transform Labour's Style through Constitutional Change and "Empathy". Martin Bright Reports


Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)


Now, when it really matters, we are about to witness another reinvention of Gordon Brown. As Tony Blair finally makes way and the long weeks of the Labour leadership succession begin, Brown will seek a significant change of style. Out, I am told, will go the clunking fist; in will come a new "listening" Gordon. The buzzword, as the prime-minister-in-waiting tours the country, will be "empathy", not a word readily associated with the Chancellor of the past ten years. Those around him have realised that there has to be a shift in the public perception of the Labour leadership if the party is to have any hope of recovery.

Despite the surface bluster about the 3 May elections providing a springboard for the next general election, no one in the higher echelons of the party--at least, no one around Brown--really believes it. The results have hit hard, especially in Scotland, where the full significance of the victory by the Scottish National Party is only just beginning to sink in. If Alex Salmond succeeds in forming a government he will provide a daily reminder to the new prime minister of his party's waning electoral fortunes. The ballot for the Scottish Parliament represented Labour's first failure in a national election since 1992. The once-unbeatable Blair-Brown election double act ran the SNP very close, but its efforts still ended in defeat, and next time around Brown will be alone.

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The original idea had been to use the six weeks until Brown's coronation to rally the party to the cause of the new leader. But those around the Chancellor now feel that such triumphalism would send the wrong message. Humility is thought to be more appropriate in the circumstances. Brown intends to tour Britain between now and Blair's final departure, testing the mood of the nation. There will still be a series of hustings around the country for the deputy leadership candidates, which Brown is likely to attend even if no challenger from the left emerges for the top job. There will also be a series of more intimate events on the model of Labour's Citizen Forums, in which around a hundred people are asked to discuss policy issues with senior politicians. In addition, Brown will spend time consulting the main left-leaning think-tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, Demos and the Social Market Foundation in an attempt to generate ideas. Any speeches he gives will not simply list the achievements of the past ten years, but will also contain significant admissions that mistakes have been made--an approach that does not come naturally to the Chancellor, but one thought necessary while the public remains so hostile to the government.

If Brown pulls it off, this will be a remarkable transformation of new Labour's style. Though Blair always appears to be engaged with his audience, he has spent over a decade lecturing Britain as he has lectured Labour. With his easy manner, he never appeared to have a problem relating to people, but on important issues, most crucially the war in Iraq, he showed a startling lack of empathy. Brown, if anything, has the opposite problem: he always seems to be delivering a lecture, even when he is involved in the most casual of conversations.

False dawns

It is easy to lose count of the false starts in the launch of the prospectus for a Brown premiership. In the early months of 2006, Labour strategists were already briefing that the prime-minister-in-waiting would begin to spread his wings with a series of grand, set-piece speeches on policy beyond his usual Treasury remit. These were designed as part of the plans for a seamless transfer of power. The speeches would showcase the Chancellor's new vision while emphasising continuity with the Blair era. The first of these, on the subject of national security, did the job well. Before an audience of experts at the Royal United Services Institute in February, Brown established beyond doubt that he would pursue the war on terror at least as passionately as his predecessor. …

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