We Need to Talk about Gordon
Sen, Hopi, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics
The premiership of Gordon Brown was a failure of such enormous proportions and devastating consequence that we in the Labour Party will not win a general election until we understand what went so terribly, terribly wrong. The current Labour Party isn't doing that. Instead, we'd rather talk about ID cards, Tony Blair, community organising, 'Refounding Labour', or short-term stimulus. We talk about anything but the failure of the last Labour Prime Minister.
Of course, since the last government came tumbling down, various survivors and observers have published their views of the Brown years, which have dominated the debate about Gordon Brown's record. Yet the understandably personal way these analyses have presented Brown, whether as a magnetic pole generating a compulsive power field over his followers or as a volcanic personality unsuited to being Prime Minister, has underestimated how his failure as Prime Minister played out amidst broad political unity amongst Labour's advocates of centrist social democracy.
This means that the spectacular collapse of this shared framework as a political proposition during Gordon Brown's premiership is given less attention than it deserves. Rather than any personal failings, Brown failed as Prime Minister because he, in common with the rest of the Labour movement, had not developed a political or governing strategy that could function in the medium term without the ability to offer extra state funding.
Since an inability to promise incremental funding is the political situation we likely find ourselves in for the next decade, the essential political task for the Labour movement is now to develop a social democratic strategy which does not rely on the essential power source of the New Labour period. If Gordon Brown's failure as Prime Minister exposes the limitations of the entire New Labour project, this presents a rather more significant challenge to those who supported the New Labour project than to those who opposed it.
The task for Labour is not how to reject New Labour, which is dead anyway, but how to build a left-of-centre political mission without the funding cornerstone that made New Labour palatable to the Labour movement and the electorate. This is no small challenge.
I am as guilty as anyone
When making statements about the scale and strength of an electoral rejection, there is usually somewhere a general assertion that, whatever else people might have been doing, the author themselves was virtuously absent from the scene of the disaster. I should therefore declare my own minor league political history. I am three things in my Labour identity. I am a loyalist first, a centrist second, and utterly insignificant third.
As a junior bag-carrier I supported Tony Blair strongly as leader, but felt that if anyone should succeed him Gordon Brown was the natural, right, overwhelming choice. Given this polling and political situation in 2007, 1 thought the best way to ensure a successful Labour government was to help Gordon Brown lead a strong, united party. Gordon Brown had, after all, been the co-creator of New Labour, but was unusually in a position to renew it without destroying it. So when Tony Blair eventually resigned, I offered my little help to Gordon Brown's campaign team to work on advance, and for a couple of weeks transported penguin stands emblazoned with 'Gordon Brown for Britain' to schools and leisure centres. When Gordon Brown's team celebrated his victory, I was the one who went to Sainsbury's in Victoria Street to buy special offer Cava.
I did all this because I thought Gordon would be a successful PM following a broadly New Labour agenda. Later, as his premiership slipped into terminal unpopularity, I supported his retention as leader. I thought the chances of success for a coup were slight and the electoral reward likely infinitesimal.
Most of all, I failed to see what great alternative was being offered. …