“Vote Blair and get Brown,” the Tories used to say. Now they are keeping quiet about this because Gordon Brown is turning out to be one of New Labour’s major assets.
In Monday’s Guardian, David Clark appealed to disillusioned Labour voters, claiming that in the past few weeks there has been “an irrevocable shift of power” away from Tony Blair to Brown.
Certainly there has been a dramatic change in tone since last autumn, when Blair announced his intention to serve for a third term, and his office spread rumours that Brown would be moved to the foreign office or even be sacked.
Last week’s Labour election broadcast portrayed Blair as an anxious job applicant, trying desperately to ingratiate himself to a stony faced Brown. This is one of many signs that the early days of the election campaign have forced even the Blairite hard core to acknowledge Blair’s unpopularity and therefore to rely on Brown.
The opinion polls suggest Brown is much more popular than Blair. He is certainly more trusted by Labour activists, who harbour the illusion that his heart belongs to Old Labour.
This illusion is being encouraged even by Robin Cook, Brown’s ancient opponent in the Scottish Labour Party. He wrote in the Guardian last week that “Labour’s manifesto sets out a progressive agenda for social justice and job opportunity” that “Old Labour sympathisers” can support “not through gritted teeth but with enthusiasm”.
These are nonetheless illusions. Robert Peston’s new book, Brown’s Britain, is intended to make the case for Brown as a visionary socialist leader for the 21st century. Peston is close to the Brown court, but he is also a competent journalist who provides plenty of evidence of how deeply committed Brown is to the entire New Labour project.
He provides the most satisfying explanation of why Brown has consistently allowed himself to be outmanoeuvred by Blair. Peston argues that Brown could have beaten Blair had he stood for the Labour Party leadership after John Smith’s death in 1994.
But he could have done so only with the support of what his close ally Nick Brown called “forces of darkness”—the trade unions and the left. This would have split the “modernisers” trying to push Labour rightwards. Brown’s first loyalty was to New Labour.
Similarly, when Blair was at his weakest after the invasion of Iraq and the David Kelly affair, Brown came to his rescue. According to Peston, “as soon as he has ever calculated that his and his supporters’ actions would leave him in charge of an unleadable party, riven by internal strife, he has pulled back (most famously, when he urged Nick Brown in early 2004 to cease opposition to the introduction of so called top-up fees for university students).”
Brown’s supporters argue that as chancellor of the exchequer Brown has presided over a “silent redistribution” of income to the poor. It’s true that measures like the Working Families’ Tax Credit have increased the income of many poor households with children.
But, as Peston points out, these benefits are means tested. A small wage increase can therefore lead to benefit cuts at a higher rate than the rich are taxed. “A City whizz kid takes home 59 percent of the millions he earns in bonuses ... while a couple with several children on a modest income retain just 40 percent of the incremental pounds they earn.”
Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor continues relentlessly to grow. “A study by the influential Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the incomes of the richest 1 percent have grown at 4.1 percent under New Labour. Meanwhile, the incomes of the very poorest have actually fallen.”
Brown has kept fairly quiet about Iraq, but, like Blair, he is a fan of the British Empire. He had the effrontery to say on a recent visit to Tanzania, “I think the days of Britain having to apologise for our history are over. I think we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it and we should talk, rightly so, about British values.”
So there you have it. Vote Brown and get New Labour Mark II. It would be much better to give up the dream of an Old Labour restoration and back Respect’s campaign to build a genuine and radical left wing alternative to New Labour.