Thursday, November 17, 2005

Brown-Blair Rivalry and the Future of Labour

Brown-Blair Rivalry and the Future of Labour

Is it real?
It is easy to dismiss stories of a deep seated rivalry between Blair and Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party and hence, since 1997, the office of Prime Minister. Voters have the power to vote in and remove governments but the fine detail of policy is often ignored by voters who bother to read the papers and stories about personalities devoured instead. Quite simply, many people find politics boring and cannot understand issues like: joining the euro; reforming public services; the Atlantic Alliance. But everyone understands envy and competitive rivalry- it happens in families, work places and in sports teams. Newspapers will naturally try to amplify stories about struggles like this on the ‘greasy pole’ of politics- hence the natural element of doubt regarding the longstanding Brown-Blair competitiveness.

Genuine rivalry
However, there really does seem to be real substance to this story upon which countless newspaper columns and even the occasional television drama have dwelt and elaborated.
The origins of the story go back to the 1980s when Gordon Brown was something of a political prodigy from Scotland. Winning a brilliant first class honours degree from Edinburgh University he went on to gain a doctorate-in Labour history- and become ‘rector’ of his university at the age of 21. He moved on to become an MP in 1983 and soon established himself as a rising star, especially on economic and financial matters. Also entering the Commons in 1983, Tony Blair came from a traditional Conservative rather than Labour background- privately educated at posh school, Fettes- and then to Oxford to study law before training to become a barrister.

Brown stands aside
Both young MPs became friends, shared a room together and set out to ‘modernize’ the party which many people saw as old fashioned and locked into old ways of thinking- nationalization, top down management of public services, union strangleholds of public sector-and which had been locked out of power since the infamous Winter of Discontent and the resulting win for Thatcher in the 1979 election. Brown established a reputation as a powerful debater, enjoyed a rapid rise as a Treasury spokesman and soon was made Shadow Trade Minister by fellow Scot, John Smith, when he led the party.
Blair meanwhile was establishing himself as a brilliant performer in the Commons but also, crucially, with a winning way on the television. Brown, the son of a priest, has a tendency to be dour and appear humourless. He does not smile much and can look glum. Blair also showed a tendency to adopt relatively right-leaning policies and repackage them as Labour. He shifted party policy from ‘full employment’ to ‘maximum possible employment’ and then, most famously, when Shadow Home Secretary to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. This last was especially crucial as Labour had always been perceived as somewhat ‘soft’ on crime compared to the Conservatives.

When Smith died in 1994 it was to the two young stars that the party turned. Almost immediately Blair was seen to be favoured by senior figures and by the media. Not wishing to split the ‘modernizers vote’ they met, ccording to legend, in a restaurant in Islington called the Granita where Brown agreed to stand aside to let Tony have a clear run. Yet Brown was seen at the time as the senior of the two with better Labour Party credentials and –said his supporters- a superior intellect. But both men had joined enthusiastically in the project to redesign the party to make it ‘New’ Labour, something different from the unpopular old dinosaur that had lost four elections in a row after 1979. It was also necessary, given the reduction of working class voters, to attract middle class votes if Labour was to win back power from a Conservative government which had ruled for 18 years under Thatcher and Major. Blair was judged by many, to be the person the middle classes would respond to, with his clean cut looks, public school accent and middle class demeanor.

Some say there was a kind of agreement that Tony would stand aside in turn after a time to allow Brown a turn at the wheel but this has never been verified. However, the various books on the subject have never been denied by Brown and it seems clear that he has always assumed a deal had existed. But he did extract one apparent agreement which Blair did respect: Brown was allowed to dominate domestic policy while Blair has looked after foreign affairs. So much evidence exists of a simmering feud that it is hard to deny that no differences exist. Reshuffles of the cabinet are always scrutinized by journalists to gauge how ‘Brownites’ have done compared to ‘Blairites’. But the chief aspect of the feud was fomented by the personal staff of the two men: Alistair Campbell for Blair and Charlie Whelan for Brown-both ‘spin doctors’ who have since departed their positions. These two men gave briefings to the media which both advanced the causes of their masters while seeking to rubbish that of the other. The story was stoked by a book which came out in 2005 by Robert Peston argued that Blair had promised his Chancellor to go in the autumn of 2004 but had infuriated Brown by not doing so. But Blair did promise to stand down before the next election, due to take place before May 2010; this unprecedented promise from a serving Prime Minister is further evidence that the feud exists. Brown is usually seen as to the left of Blair but it can be argued that he is also favour of introducing market forces and the private sector into public services. Blair is firmly of the opinion that to reform successfully public services have to achieve the same discipline as those companies which succeed in the private sector. This makes him unpopular with left leaning Labour MPs who have vowed to frustrate his plans.

Labour’s Record since 1997
a) Economy has continued to grow year on year at 2-3%, a better record than countries in the eurozone. However, Brown deserves most of the credit for this.

b) Huge investments in education and health, the services most voters want to see improve. Given the atrophy of such services under the Conservatives, this has been a key advantage at election times.

c) Constitutional Change: Scotland has been given a Parliament, Wales an Assembly and hereditary members of the House of Lords have been abolished. In addition a Human Rights Act was passed in 1998.

d) Northern Ireland has not been pacified totally but the degree of peace and prosperity in the province is a testimony to the efforts Blair has put into finding a settlement.

e) Foreign policy has been mixed. Blair led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo have been successful and most supported the war in Afghanistan following 9-11, but the invasion of Iraq, despite the horrific regime of Saddam Hussein was a step too far for many voters of both main parties.

This is a thoroughly respectable record for any government to boast but Blair still yearns for something big : Heath had entry into Europe, Thatcher turned the economy round by breaking the power of the unions. But Blair so far, it would appear, has nothing that he can look back on with similar pride; hence his problem of when to go. Has he done enough yet?

The big problems for Brown are:

a) when will Tony stand down? Churchill kept Eden waiting for years to take over as PM and Blair seems to enjoy his job so much he might end up staying until the very last minute and

b) will the party be worth leading by then?

Good Things Going for Labour

i) It won a third successive election victory in May 2005.

ii)Economy has enjoyed the longest period of sustained growth for 200 years.

iii)Labour has had majorities of 179 in 1997, 160 in 2001 and 67 in 2005 respectively.

iv) After a drastic dip in his ratings during the early summer-despite having just won an election- Blair’s popularity rose after UK’s successful Olympic bid for 2112 and his stout, Churchillian response to the July bombings.

v)Huge expenditure on health, education and transport, all services which had been starved of funding during the Conservatives’ period in power.

Bad Things Going for Labour

i)With a hard core of some 30 rebels Blair cannot guarantee to win votes any more in the Commons.

ii)Economy is showing signs of decline with lower growth and unemployment beginning to rise plus the possibility of a ‘hole’ in the public finances some short time hence which can only be filled through more highly unpopular taxation.

iii)Iraq: Blair’s continuing problem lies supporting this war which daily brings in bad news and the origin of which, in terms of British involvement is a constant embarrassment e.g. the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. A recent memoir by the former ambassador to Washington-Sir Christopher Meyer- also portrayed Blair as unable to defend British interests and with no grasp of essential detail on a par with that of Thatcher and John Major.

iv)Problems for key ministers: Blunkett was forced to resign in November after he appeared to have ignored rules about working in the private sector after leaving office. This was a major blow as Blunkett, who has overcome the handicaps of blindness as well as poverty and a single parent household, was a good answer to the accusation that New Labour had lost its ability to sympathize with the disadvantaged. Blunkett also had a reputation for getting things done, though often by ignoring established ways of governing. Indeed this tendency to blast his way through and ignore the constraints was an element in his downfall. He had resigned just before the last election when it transpired he had helped the nanny of his (unlikely) lover Kimberley Quinn to acquire permission to stay in the country. The fact that his lover- a glamorous society hostess and publisher of the rightwing Spectator magazine- added to the impression that Blunkett had been somehow ‘corrupted by power’.

This appearance of being ‘spoilt’ by power has been insidious for the party in government, not helped by Blair’s habit of staying in the holiday homes of rightwing leaders like Silvio Berlusconi or his wife’s tendency to appear overly interested in acquiring the reality and trappings of mega-wealth. To illustrate this tendency in the leader’s life style, Blair’s longtime close friend Peter Mandelson- another minister who was twice sacked- once said ‘New Labour is intensely relaxed about people becoming stinking rich’.

v)Terror Bill: On 9th November Blair’s bill designed to make the country safer from terrorists received its second major reverse. The first had been on a clause which was won by only one vote and the second was on the length of time suspects could be held without charge. Blair favoured a 90 day period, as recommended by the police and supported by the majority of voters but he was defeated by 31 votes.

vi)‘Decoupling’: this is a tactic said to be favoured by the Conservatives of supporting Blair’s rightwing reforms and helping him to win but effectively separating him from his party and making it likely to split. This last happened in 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. Labour did not begin to win popular support after that for over ten years. Blair would not wish to go down as the man who split his party.

vii)David Cameron, the Eton educated Conservative MP who seems likely to win the leadership of the opposition party is seen as that party’s ‘Blair’. He could easily emerge as a popular critic of Blair and come to be seen as the ‘Prime Minister in Waiting.’ If the worst happened Brown would inherit a split party destined to lose its attempt to win four in a row. This explains why brown supporters are desperate for Blair to go soon or to declare when he will go so that Brown is more likely to inherit a party with some chance of winning the next election.

viii)Public Services: No real evidence exists that the huge sums spent on public services have transformed them. Productivity has not been revolutionized and extra cash pumped in seems to have mostly gone on increased staff salaries. Polls show only minorities think public services have improved significantly.

ix)The Pensions crisis is affecting millions of workers. UK has an ageing population with many older people expecting to live much longer. This means fewer people will be available to work the economy and generous pensions will be a thing of the past. One problem is that public sector workers will not back down and threaten industrial action.

Will Blair go Sooner or Later?
This is the key question. Critics want him out so Brown can establish a record of achievement and go on to win the next election. Blair loyalists believe he is on the right track and want him to continue. Inevitably some of the political support for the two men is purely based on who will offer the most reward. Some former Blairites, like Clare Short, has tacked towards Brown, possibly because she thinks he might offer more chance of a return to the Cabinet.

Attitude to Party
Some critics claim Blair has never really been a Labour politician, that his heart has always leaned fundamentally towards the right- apart from his traditional Conservative background, his father actually harboured ambitions to become an MP for that party. They claim Bliar is more concerned with achieving ‘legacy policies’, those things which people will look back on and attribute to Blair’s ‘glorious reign’. Andrew Rawnsley, in the Observer, 13th November believes Blair is not inclined to compromise and duck and weave to stay in power. He seemed almost to know he would lose over the 90 day issue but seemed also to believe it was better to lose on the right issue than win on the wrong one. If this is to be his approach, Blair might find his swansong will soon be upon him as Labour rebels are in no mood for sentimentality. However, if he is prepared to do deals and compromise, to listen, adapt and refashion policies to suit elements in the party, then he might stay for another year or maybe more. But the party Brown inherits, if indeed he does win the leadership contest after Blair goes, will be much different from the one which triumphantly and euphorically marched onto the Commons benches in June 1997.

Bill Jones, 16/11/05


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