The hangdog dictator in Downing Street

It is the cowardice of his own party and lack of moral authority of the other parties that allows the utterly isolated Brown to stay in power.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

Why is Gordon Brown clinging to power? With minuscule electoral support, absolutely no moral authority, and little enthusiasm for him in his own party, what is his motivation? What drives him to get out of bed every morning, to reshuffle his cabinet, to argue that he’s the only man for the job of PM when the public clearly thinks otherwise?

What we are witnessing is the emergence of a new form of dictatorship, built not on political ruthlessness but on political disarray, and headed not by a strongman politician who has crushed his opponents but by a weakman politician benefiting from the confusion of his opponents. Brown is a dictator by default, if you like, undemocratically staying in power not because he wants to force through some terrifying new measures, but simply because he can. This rule of the weak over the unimpressed many is a consequence of the emptying out of politics, and the gaping disconnect between the ruling elite and the public.

It is unquestionable now that Brown is not in power as a result of the public’s wishes. He has no democratic credentials whatsoever. He was never elected as PM in a General Election, instead inheriting the position from Tony Blair in 2007 as a result of a power-sharing deal they arranged in private 13 years earlier. The party that he leads won 15 per cent of the vote in the European elections last week, where the turnout was 35 per cent: this means only five per cent of the British electorate could muster up the energy to vote for Brown’s party. In the local elections, Labour won 23 per cent in a turnout of around 30 per cent in parts of England and Wales, translating into roughly 7.5 per cent of the electorate who could be bothered to put a cross next to Brown’s party. The people do not support Brown.

Faced not only with risible levels of public support but also with a dearth of talent in his own party, Brown has now surrounded himself with what one commentator labels ‘the least democratic cabinet since the war’ (1). Lord Peter Mandelson, who hasn’t stood in an election since 2001, remains as secretary of state for business and has a revamped role as de facto deputy prime minister. Lord Andrew Adonis, who has never been elected by anyone, has been brought in as secretary of state for transport. Brown is also taking on businessman Alan Sugar as an adviser but had to make him a lord first, since Sugar has also never dirtied his hands in anything so grubby as an election.

What this means is something quite shocking: Britain is currently ruled by an unelected PM, an unelected deputy PM, a cabinet with numerous unelected officials, and a party that can count on no more than 5 to 7.5 per cent of eligible British voters to support it. We are governed by a tiny, undemocratic, illegitimate clique.

Yet far from offering themselves up for a General Election, the clique is taking every possible measure to insulate itself from any nationwide democratic scrutiny. Labour officials and their supporters have devoted their energies to putting forward arguments for why there must not be a General Election. Brown provided an unwitting glimpse into his fear and loathing of the public when he said to a TV interviewer: ‘Do you really want to see tomorrow, in the midst of the recession, the chaos of an election?’ (2) That word, ‘chaos’, perfectly summed up the Brown view of a democratic poll in contrast to the apparently wise, measured, aloof decision-making that is required in a downturn.

The few remaining Brown supporters in the media also insist that a General Election is not the answer. Some argue that it would amount to ‘mob justice’ to let voters loose on the political parties so soon after the expenses scandal (3). Apparently the ‘public reaction [to the scandal] has been hysterical’, creating a ‘uniquely poisonous atmosphere’, and holding an election in such a climate would give rise to ‘the spectacle of a House of Commons populated by TV celebrities, obsessives who blame the EU for everything, and members of the BNP’ (4). Well, you never know who the public will vote for when they’re possessed of an irrational fever.

It is rich in the extreme for media outlets that generated the expenses scandal, and politicians who stoked it with their televised self-flagellation, to label the public as hysterical-about-expenses and thus untrustworthy at the polls. Sections of the elite are cynically using the expenses scandal to express their already-existing distrust of the over-emotional electorate. As the leaked Peter Mandelson-Derek Draper emails revealed, New Labour officials held this view of voters pre-expenses scandal. ‘People vote according to a partly unconscious emotional motivation, as much, if not more than, a rational one’, wrote Draper (5).

The Brown clique’s dictatorial tendencies are also clear in its insistence that it knows what the public wants and thus there’s no need to ask us in a General Election. Giving his post-local election talk to the Newham Labour Party, Brown cited three letters he had received from ‘ordinary people’ as evidence that the British public – who just days earlier had flat-out refused to vote for him – ‘wants us to institute fairness and a more responsible politics’ (6). Throughout history, unelected leaders have claimed to represent the spirit of the public interest and have even said they know better than the public itself what the public really wants; now Brown does likewise.

This is an extraordinary state of affairs. Two unelected leaders dominate the cabinet, representing a party that has a tiny share of the national vote, as their ministers and minions publicly decry elections as unnecessary and voters as hysterical. The rise of this undemocratic, public-fearing government has left many confused; the question of why Brown stays is particularly taxing. It is not, as some have suggested, simply because of his dark, macho psychology, though no doubt his lifelong desire to be PM, and his belief that he has some God-given right to be in No.10, plays a role in all this. More fundamentally, the illegitimate Brown clique retains its power on the basis of other political forces’ disarray and in the absence of any mass movement for an alternative way of doing politics.

One of the main things allowing Brown to stay is his own party’s lack of direction and its gutlessness. Some Labour MPs and officials have spoken out against him, and there was a flurry of resignations from his cabinet. Yet no potential leader has come forth to challenge him, and such is the average Labour MP’s fear of the unpredictable electorate that the last thing they want is a post-leadership-contest General Election. As one commentator argues: ‘[The fact that] a new leader would be forced to call a General Election in which Labour would be decimated has created a powerful counterweight among Labour MPs against the pressure to force Brown out.’ (7)

More fundamentally, the absence of any serious challenge to Brown gives the lie to the idea that the Labour Party is a hotbed of different political factions, some ‘Socialist’, some not-so-Socialist, which continually vie to elevate or demote certain ‘Labour values’ (8). In truth, the Parliamentary Labour Party is increasingly a collection of self-interested individuals and a couple of personality cults, and there’s no political momentum behind any particular person or particular vision. This is the first thing that sustains, by default, the Brown dictatorship: his party’s own dearth of political direction or anything approaching a collective will, which means it is willing to accept, for the purposes of basic survival, the continued rule of an unpopular leader.

Secondly, there’s the lack of moral or popular authority amongst the other parties. David Cameron of the Conservatives and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats continually throw out statements such as ‘Brown should ask the Queen to dissolve parliament’ or ‘We must have a General Election’; but their words have little or no force, coming as they do from leaders who also do not enjoy enthusiastic backing. In the local elections, the Conservatives won 38 per cent of the vote, yes, but this was a five per cent decline on their results last time. Their ‘stunning victory’ in the European elections represented only a 1 per cent increase on their vote in the last European elections. Labour’s vote fell by 6.9 per cent since the last Euro-election – it’s pretty clear all those disappeared Labour votes did not go to the Conservatives. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, came fourth, as their Euro-vote fell by 1.2 per cent.

Behind the bluster of their demands for a General Election, which sound more like soundbites than meaningful challenges to Brown’s rule, Cameron and Clegg see in the isolation of Brown an extreme version of their own distance from the electorate and inability to make a connection with us. This, too, helps to sustain Brown’s hapless, hangdog dictatorship: the lack of popular clout and vision amongst his opponents.

Indeed, in many ways the emergence of the undemocratic Brown clique can be seen as a physical, numbers-based manifestation of the broader disconnection that has existed between the political elite and the electorate for the past 15 years or more. Yes, the tangible collapse in support for Brown reveals a growing and qualitative disillusionment with the Labour government; but it also makes more clear the chasm that has opened up between our oligarchic political rulers and the public in recent years but which has been disguised by what many described as ‘massive support for New Labour’. (In truth, this has always been exaggerated. Even New Labour’s landslide victory over the Tories in 1997 was won on the lowest turnout at a General Election since 1935, showing very early on New Labour’s inability to inspire popular engagement.) What we have ended up with is a very new kind of political tyranny, based not on strong leadership but on the absence of leadership.

It is intolerable for Britain to be governed by what is now a minority party. spiked is not a referendum junkie who thinks every issue should be put to the electorate; nor do we believe that just because a leader says or does something unpopular he should be ejected from office. However, it’s clear Brown has no mandate or moral authority to rule, and that his clinging to power is both a product and exacerbator of the contemporary crisis of political leadership and vision. We need a General Election now. Not, as Cameron, Clegg and other capital-C cynics argue, so that voters can get some kind of revenge or closure on the expenses issue, where, according to one newspaper, ‘only an election can drain the political poison’; that is to treat a General Election as the political equivalent of attaching a leech to a sick man in the hope that it will make him well again (9). No, we need a General Election so that we can properly choose our rulers, and more importantly try to stir up some serious debate about politics, society and democracy in the twenty-first century.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) The least democratic cabinet since the war, Spectator Online, 6 June 2009

(2) Gordon Brown chaos theory: we might not win the election, Guardian, 20 May 2009

(3) Ultimately, only an election can drain this political poison, Independent, 16 May 2009

(4) I am sick of my country and this hysteria over MPs, Comment Is Free, 25 May 2009

(5) See The psycho-politics of a collapsing elite, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Speech to Newham Labour Party, 7 June 2009

(7) When putsch comes to shove, Guardian, 5 June 2009

(8) When putsch comes to shove, Guardian, 5 June 2009

(9) Ultimately, only an election can drain this political poison, Independent, 16 May 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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