Will someone, anyone, please challenge Brown?

With no debate or contest, the ‘handover’ of power from Blair to Brown is becoming an ever more princely, undemocratic affair.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

It doesn’t matter much who stands against Gordon Brown in a contest for the Labour leadership, but somebody should.

Over the past few days, two potential challengers have thrown their towels – rather than their hats – into the ring. Charles Clarke, former home secretary, withdrew from the contest at the weekend. John Reid, current home secretary, followed, announcing that he would resign when Tony Blair goes at the end of June. Environment secretary David Miliband ruled himself out a while ago. That just leaves Michael Meacher, former environment secretary, trying to gather the requisite number of nominations to force a leadership contest.

The longer all this continues, the more aristocratic it starts to appear. Indeed, it would be easy to forget that Brown is bidding to be prime minister of a Western democratic country rather than, say, angling for princely power in some faraway kingdom.

All the discussion is about ensuring an ‘orderly succession’ or ‘stable transition’. The event that will apparently occur at the end of June is called the ‘Blair-Brown handover’, a fait accompli that everybody has talked about for so long that they simply accept it. The aim is apparently to minimise disruption, to ‘hand over’ power as smoothly as possible.

Elections would apparently be too messy. As Reid put it, ‘I do not believe there is eagerness in the party for what might be a divisive exercise at this time’. Elections, a divisive exercise? Everywhere the language of aristocracy has replaced the language of democracy. One recent newspaper headline announced that Blair ‘anoints his successor’ (1), while an Australian newspaper described it as a ‘coronation’ (2).

Brown is behaving like a spoilt prince, too. Rather than petitioning for support among the Labour Party or the public, he has focused his efforts on negotiating with Blair. Time after time, we read that Brown is frustrated that Blair is delaying the handover, or that Blair has gone back on his promises. Blair and Brown camps have negotiated back and forth over a ‘timetable’ as if they were the only two people in the country.

I tried to explain this situation to some American students recently, and drew disbelieving looks. At base, Brown is taking over because it’s his turn. Blair promised. Whether that folklore meeting in the Granita restaurant actually happened, everybody is behaving as if it had.

Some talk up Brown as some kind of new hope for the country, representing a change in direction. Yet Brown has been Blair’s clunking, scowling shadow for the past 13 years, when Blair first took on the Labour Party leadership. Brown is Blair minus the political charisma and verve. He’s been there every step of the way, only a step behind, tugging on Blair’s sleeve.

As New Labour pollster Philip Gould recounts in The Unfinished Revolution, Brown was the favourite to take over from Labour leader John Smith until about mid-1992. Around the middle of 1993, Gould says, the initiative passed to Blair. When Smith died of a heart attack in May 1994, all the momentum was with Blair.

Even allowing for Gould’s closer ties with Blair, his description of events is salutary. When Brown asked Gould who would have the best chance of winning an election, Gould replied, ‘Tony…without hesitation’: ‘Gordon asked me why, and I replied that Tony…would create for Labour and for Britain a sense of change, of a new beginning, which Gordon could not do.’ (3)

That was 1994. Now in 2007 we are supposed to believe that Brown is the future? (Brown is, as it happens, showing the same lack of political initiative that he was showing then, when he apparently became ‘depressed’ with the shadow chancellor’s brief. Now he is hanging in the wings waiting for Blair to go: one minister was reduced to appealing for him to ‘come out of hiding’ and ‘show some leadership’.) (4)

It’s only in a climate of extreme political resignation that such events can occur. Blairism has burnt out, but nothing new has come through. So Labour goes back to the party hopeful circa 1992. The result is that Brown can claim the position of prime minister without ever having to justify himself.

Brown’s potential challengers, often described as ‘heavyweights’ by the press, have proven distinctly featherweight. One effort by Clarke and (former health secretary) Alan Milburn to build some opposition to Brown involved creating a website for discussion about ‘New Labour’s renewal’ (5). This was described by some as an ‘attempted putsch’. A website for discussion? That must go down as one of the stranger putsch attempts in history.

So please, someone, anyone, stand against the coronation of Brown. A contest, of whatever sort, would mean that Brown would have to make some attempt to build party and public support. A contest might show that there’s a little life in British democracy yet.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club. Email her {encode=”” title=”here”}.

After Blair

What’s worse than a Blairite? A Blair basher by Brendan O’Neill. Why (almost) everything you know about ‘Tony Bliar’ is wrong by Mick Hume. Scarier than Thatcher the milk snatcher by Jennie Bristow. The road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions by James Heartfield. And coming up on spiked this week: revisiting the Blairites’ tyranny of health; how New Labour intensified community divisions, and more.

(1) Blair finally anoints Brown his successor, London Evening Standard, 1 May 2007

(2) Blair, where did it all go wrong?, The Age, 3 May 2007

(3) Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, p195

(4) Come out of hiding and lead us, Brown urged by his party, London Evening Standard, 8 May 2007

(5) See The 20/20 vision website

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Topics Politics


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