Election: the question is not when, but why and what?
Whenever Gordon Brown calls the UK general election, one result already seems clear: a landslide defeat for political debate.
After prime minister Gordon Brown’s big speech at the Labour Party conference yesterday, all the feverish discussion is about when he might call a UK general election. Never mind ‘When’, the real question is ‘What’ will such an election be about? What political choices are we being offered? Brown droned on for more than an hour, but you could search his thousands of words in vain for any answer to that question.
I wrote here shortly after Brown took over from Tony Blair that ‘The Brown “revolution” is more likely to be a funeral than a street party, banging the final nail into the coffin of political life and digging a grave for any grand political visions of changing society.’ (See The gravedigger in Downing Street, by Mick Hume.) In this, his first speech to conference as prime minister, you could hear the hammer and spade at work.
The message of Brown’s speech was:
1. I am not Tony Blair (and therefore by implication not David Cameron);
2. I am not really a politician at all. Instead the prime minister sought to position himself as a figure above party politics, the steady and reliable father of the nation – L’État, c’est moi, as Louis XIV might have put it, or as Ray Winstone said in Scum: ‘Who’s the daddy now?’
Thus the prime minister mentioned Britain or British around 80 times. And when he talked proudly about ‘Britain’ bravely standing up to recent crises such as the threat of terrorism and foot-and-mouth, he meant ‘Brown’.
Some have pointed out how Brown’s pointed failure even to mention the opposition Conservatives or Liberal Democrats smacks of the politics of the one-party state – an impression hardly dispelled by the Stalinesque ‘Strength’ slogans plastered all over the conference. But more than that, this was about Brown as a one-man show, the conference reduced to a passive rally audience to provide background for the all-important media coverage.
In this cult of the personality, of course, as in much else, Brown was following the New Labour path pioneered by Tony Blair, for whom the party was rarely anything more than unwanted baggage. The only real difference is in the contrasting personal images they seek to project. Brown’s is summed up by the slogan that the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agent recently used to win the New Labour account: ‘Not Flash, just Gordon.’ They might just as well have made it ‘Not Blair, just Brown.’
The idea that Brown is not interested in the politics of image is made a nonsense of by the fact that he has to hire Margaret Thatcher’s former image-makers to sell his, err, non-image. Brown’s people have evidently decided that they cannot do much to alter the view of him as a dour Scot, so they are playing to it. But more than that, his style exactly suits the substance of his no-party politics.
Brown stands before the nation as a non-ideological moral leader, a son of the Manse with a moral compass in one hand and a Bible in the other, both of which he got from his father – indeed his emphasis on the role of his family in forming his views comes close to biological determinism. He is sold less as a political leader with ideas we can believe in than a bank manager with solid assets in which we can trust (although strangely Brown failed to mention in his speech the recent experience of many with the bank managers of Northern Rock).
But behind all the Brown-nosing in the media, what is the prime minister really offering in terms of a political vision for the Britain he bangs on about? Most of the policy proposals outlined in his speech were just more of the same bureaucratic reforms of state services that we have heard countless times over the past decade – which is hardly surprising, seeing as Brown authored most of Blair’s policies on these issues. The only fresh ‘ideas’ that Brown offered here were banal even by bank manager standards, such as his bold declaration that hospital matrons would be empowered to tick off rubbishy cleaning contractors! Then there was the familiar empty grandstanding on teenage drinking or anti-social behaviour, where he is determined not to be out-Thatchered by Cameron’s Conservatives.
Yet on the few genuinely divisive issues that exist in British politics today – Iraq or Europe, for example – Brown said next to nothing. But then he never said much on these things over the past decade either, disappearing from the frontline whenever a real political crisis occurred – in sharp contrast to his hogging of the limelight over failed car bombings in London and Glasgow or a few dead cows on a couple of Surrey farms. The political cowardice of which Brown was often accused during the Blair years seemed to be on open display in what he didn’t say in Bournemouth, giving the lie to his self-image as the strong national leader in times of trouble.
Yet few in the media have seemed to want to point out those failings this week. The successful impact of Brown’s terrible, tedious speech rests entirely on the easy ride it has been given both inside and outside the conference hall. Inside, as seasoned observers have noted, there is – for the first time in living memory at any UK party conference – a total absence of opposition voices or factions. The Labour left is dead, and the Blairites tamed. Outside, much of the British media continues its remarkable love-in with Brown’s new New Labour.
Such is the bitter disappointment felt by the political/media class at being let down by Blair that they remain desperate to believe Brown’s promises of change. Thus it seems that Brown can currently do no wrong. Even his friendly critics from the Guardian wing of the New Labour camp are only expressing the gentle wish that this ‘conviction politician’ might pursue a few more of his Brownite convictions (although it is unclear how they assume to know what those might be). The tone was summed up by one such leading columnist who noted that Brown’s speech had entirely lacked ‘a single, coherent argument – on indeed a stand-out, memorable phrase’; but quickly made clear that the fact he had said nothing much and said it badly ‘should not detract from the political skill on display’. Yeah, right.
The prime minister even got away with using the dread phrase ‘British jobs for British workers’ without being publicly pilloried. As one old friend of mine observed, ‘I’m sure I have a copy of National Front News circa 1979 with that same headline.’
So, when will the election be? In the autumn, if Brown has the sense and nerve to grab his moment, otherwise who knows? But in another sense, who cares? Why will there be an election? Only to secure another five years of matronly management under Gordon, ‘our’ glorious un-glamorous leader. And what will the election be about? A contest between parties all infected with the same New Labour politics of low expectations, green-tinted austerity (although Brown was notably cautious in spelling out too much of what that might mean), and the security state.
Little wonder that, while election fever mounts in the media and Westminster, there is not a scintilla of excitement in the country. The electoral machines might be cranking into life, but political debate is dead and buried. Little wonder that the focus groups which now clog up every TV news bulletin tend to conclude that, whilst they would probably rather have Brown than Cameron or Campbell, their real preference is for ‘none of the above’.
Doesn’t it make you proud to be British?
Rob Lyons asked how the Ealing Southall by-election represents the nature of British politics today. Brendan O’Neill implored us to stop avoiding the issues and get to the point. Mick Hume examined New Labour’s legacy. Brendan O’Neill gave 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is not fit to be prime minister and spiked readers voted Brown Miserabilist of the Year. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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