Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1861

Rivals cut from the same cloth

This article is over 18 years, 5 months old
Blair has been labelled 'Psycho Tony' by Gordon Brown's supporters. But would the chancellor be any better if he moved into 10 Downing Street?
Issue 1861

WHEN TONY Blair goes, who will replace him? With the vultures circling around the current occupant of 10 Downing Street, chancellor Gordon Brown must be wondering if he will eventually get the post he has long coveted. Brown is the favoured candidate of several senior figures in the Labour Party and the trade unions.

They present him as a genuinely Labour man as opposed to the ‘outsider’ Blair. If Brown was leader, it is claimed, Labour would return much closer to its roots and New Labour type policies would be history. Such a claim is nonsense.

It would be a hugely important moment if Blair went. It would be a reflection of the mass disillusion with New Labour and, in particular, its decision to go to war against Iraq.

When Margaret Thatcher was forced out because of the revolt against the poll tax in 1990 it was immensely significant, even though she was replaced by John Major. Blair’s demise as a result of his deep unpopularity would be a spur to further struggle, another boost to realignment on the left.

But real change requires much more than getting Gordon Brown into the top job. Brown has not been an unwilling follower, grudgingly following in Blair’s wake. He spearheaded the policies now thought of as Blairism. He has as good a claim as anyone to be the architect of New Labour.

It was Brown who:

  • Insisted just before the 1997 election that Labour would stick to Tory spending limits. This meant bleeding public services dry and crushing the hopes that people had that ‘things would get better’.
  • Demanded a public pledge from all leading Labour figures that the party was not going to put up income tax rates for the rich.
  • In the 1990s under John Smith, helped devise the tactics of the ‘prawn cocktail offensive’ to win business backing for Labour.
  • As one of his first actions as chancellor handed control of interest rates over to the unelected Bank of England.
  • Singlehandedly tore up Labour’s policy that it would abolish the Jobseeker’s Allowance and replace it with a higher level of benefits.
  • In every one of his budgets has cut taxes on profits so that now they are the lowest in Europe.
  • Backed the war against Iraq and put aside £3 billion to pay for it.

Brown has been fashioning New Labour for some 15 years. In 1989, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Labour leader Neil Kinnock asked him to look at the findings of the party’s Policy Review. He simply crossed out almost every proposal that could be said to carry a cost. Today Brown still says he ‘wages war on poverty’.

Overall his budgets have moved a very small amount of money from the very richest to the very poorest (if they can navigate their way through the maze of forms required to claim all the potential tax credits and benefits). But at the same time inequality has grown even wider than under the Tories. Brown has presided over an economy where the rich vastly outstrip the poor and get to keep their loot because of tax cuts. His budgets have at best been tiny steps downwards on an escalator speeding upwards in favour of the people with power and wealth. Brown would sound different to Blair. But his policies would be New Labour in a Scottish accent, gruel Britannia rather than cool Britannia.

The way politics has opened up in the last 18 months has given great potential to build a real socialist left. Millions of people are questioning imperialism and the way capitalism distorts our lives. We can surely set our sights higher than privatising, business-wooing, benefit-squeezing, warmongering Brown.

Brown could not pose as any sort of alternative to Blair if he did not have deep roots in the party and, as with many previous Labour leaders, a past on the left. He spent much of his early life attacking the sort of policies that he would later implement. At the age of nine he was producing his own left wing local newspaper. It was sold ‘in aid of refugees’.

In 1967 he went to Edinburgh University and gained a reputation as a thorn in the side of the college authorities. Brown was also involved in the Chile Solidarity Campaign after the 1973 coup and in support work for the British miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974.

In 1975 Brown edited The Red Paper on Scotland, a collection of essays which tried to give the Labour Party a new and more modern philosophy. In those days Brown’s ‘modernisation’ meant steering hard to the left. He called for a ‘massive and irreversible shift of power to working people, a framework of free universal welfare services controlled by the people who use them.’

Brown went on to demand the ‘public control of construction, food and food processing, insurance and pensions, energy as a whole, land, banking, foreign trade, the assets of the multinationals, shipbuilding and textiles’. Brown did not shed his left wing beliefs overnight. But he moved rightwards as he climbed up the Labour hierarchy. He was adopted as a parliamentary candidate in 1976 and within two years was on a key Scottish Labour Party committee.

In 1981 Brown publicly defended the Scottish leadership against criticism that it was too right wing. But he was careful to retain links with a layer of left wing trade union and party officials. He was selected for a safe parliamentary seat in 1983 due to the backing of the TGWU union and its local left wing officials. During that year’s election campaign he tore into the Tories. ‘What we have is a new Tory party that genuinely believes that state support should only be provided for the wholly destitute.’

Brown’s first speech as an MP was a meticulously researched demolition of a ‘government which no longer sees the problem as unemployment but the unemployed. ‘They seem to be suggesting that benefits are deterring the unemployed from seeking jobs. They are implying that in future benefits should be set at a level that will not permit even a minimum of dignity and comfort.’ Perhaps some backbencher looking at New Labour’s schemes to deny benefit to the ‘undeserving unemployed’ might like to quote Brown’s words back to him today.

After Labour lost the 1987 general election the party leadership decided to turn decisively against the left. Brown played a central role in the process. As a front bench economic spokesperson Brown worked to get all mention of public ownership removed from Labour’s policy documents. He popularised slogans like ‘only promising what we can afford’ and adding ‘so far as resources allow’ to any policy commitment.

Labour wanted to be loved by bosses and it was prepared to make huge concessions to them. In this respect Brown was a success. Days before he presented his 1997 budget Brown received a letter from Iain Vallance, the head of British Telecom. It said, ‘I write to offer my warmest congratulations on your confirmation as chancellor. We very much look forward to working with you and your colleagues in bringing in a new era.’

Gordon Brown…
1975 ‘It is increasingly impossible to manage the economy both for private profit and the needs of society as a whole.’

1994 ‘Labour is not against wealth, nor will we seek to penalise it.’

2002 ‘The Labour Party is more pro-business, pro-wealth creation, and pro-competition than ever before.’

‘The fascination with the relationship, and rivalry, between Blair and Brown should not obscure one central fact. New Labour was their joint creation. The chancellor does not represent the promise of an alternative project over the water.

‘Anyone doubting this should consult Paddy Ashdown’s diaries, where he records his assignations with Blair before 1997. Blair suggests that the time has come to involve Brown. There follows a meeting between Ashdown and Brown. In the course of their discussion, Brown gives an exposition of what New Labour is about that is pure Blairism.’

Tony Wright Labour MP for Cannock Chase

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