What's Next for Labour? the Brown Succession

By Vaughan, Rory | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

What's Next for Labour? the Brown Succession


Vaughan, Rory, Contemporary Review


CONTEMPORARY REVIEW readers, like many people in the UK and around the world, will have been considering what to make of the recent change at the top of British politics. In June 2007, after ten years as Prime Minister, Tony Blair resigned to be replaced by his Chancellor, close colleague and rival, Gordon Brown. This followed a Labour leadership election in which Mr Brown was elected unopposed as leader after no other candidate obtained or attempted to obtain the backing of the forty-five Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) needed to enter the race. So, his colleagues backed him, but in Mr Brown have the Labour Party chosen a leader who is capable of keeping them in government both in this decade and beyond?

Critics of Mr Brown had, unsurprisingly, been putting forward their views since autumn 2006 when Tony Blair announced that he would be resigning as Labour Party leader within twelve months. The rivalry between the two men appeared to spill over at the Labour Party conference in Manchester in September 2006 when Mrs Blair was reported to have made some disparaging remarks about Mr Brown. This neighbourly dispute (the Prime Minister and Chancellor live next door to each other at numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street) was skilfully handled by Mr Blair in his final leader's speech to the conference when he remarked of his wife that 'at least she won't be running off with the bloke next door!'

Mr Brown's personality has been the subject of some searing criticism. His detractors claim that he is 'dour' and un-charismatic and so unlikely to win over key voters in an age of 24-hour news and a 'celebrity culture'. They contrast him unfavourably with the charismatic Mr Blair, whose style was considered to be both engaging and persuasive, particularly on television.

Mr Brown came under further scrutiny in March 2007 when Sir Andrew Turnbull, former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury under him, suggested in some unguarded remarks to a journalist that Mr Brown could be like Stalin in his ruthlessness in running his department. He also went on to say that he had a 'Macavity' quality (a reference to a cat in a T.S. Eliot poem Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats) in that 'he is not there when there is dirty work to be done'. Sir Andrew later acknowledged that these comments, which he had thought were off the record, were inappropriate, but, by then, the media had already made much of them.

Other critics have suggested that Mr Brown was not a 'team player' in his time as Shadow Chancellor and Chancellor. They point to a number of disagreements, particularly over public spending commitments, as a sign that it would be difficult for him to lead his colleagues when he has seemingly been unable to get on with them in the past.

Others have pointed to Mr Brown's Scottishness as being a drawback. There are perhaps three key points here: electoral appeal, the 'West Lothian Question' and the 'Barnett Formula'. First, some have commented that, as a Scot, Mr Brown will be unable to win the support of English voters who are critical of Labour's hopes of winning a fourth consecutive general election. This group is often referred to as 'Middle England', but is much less often clearly defined. However, they might perhaps be those relatively affluent voters in the 'C1' and 'C2' socio-economic groups who are key to parliamentary elections in marginal constituencies.

Secondly, there is the issue of Scottish devolution. A Scottish Parliament was set up, following a referendum, in 1999. Powers over a range of issues that would otherwise be exercised by Westminster were devolved to the parliament, including such key areas as Health and Education. This left the 'West Lothian Question' unresolved, namely should Scottish MPs vote in the Westminster Parliament on matters that affect England only? (A Welsh Assembly was also set up in 1999 with a different range of devolved powers.) Mr Brown's accession to the top job has brought this question back into the public arena, as he represents a Scottish seat in Parliament. …

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