Is Gordon Brown back? Even in the chaos of international financial mayhem, the question of Brown’s future has hung over British politics over the last week as the parties have switched to national conference season.
With a string of political disasters culminating in the Glasgow East by-election, Brown looked like he was finished. A wide-ranging article by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, published in The Guardian in late July, was seen as a declaration of interest in the top job by a likely challenger. With a likely contender emerging, the overthrow of the Prime Minister seemed only a matter of time.
Yet Brown has clung on. At the Labour Party’s national conference last week, a well-received speech, accompanied by a politically priceless "kiss of wife" from spouse Sarah, has given him some further oxygen. The conference may have been uneasy, but there was no rebellion. The handling of the resignation of Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly was careless, but not fatal. And when the applause had cleared, the first poll came in and showed the all important result: Brown had experienced a bounce. Though still well behind the Tories, some vital ground had been regained.
Nevertheless, just how much grunt there is in Brown’s new traction will only really be known when the Conservative Party’s autumn conference winds up at the end of this week. These UK party conferences often have a strong influence on the polls depending on the performance of each, so whether Labour’s numbers will fall back to their dismal pre-conference depths once the Torys have had a turn is anyone’s guess.
There’s plenty of drama and suspense in UK politics at present but the escalation of the global financial crisis has suddenly and fundamentally shifted the frame of political debate.
The City of London exemplifies the unregulated financial system that has come so spectacularly unstuck over the last year. Both the Tories and New Labour were complicit in the deregulation that made it all possible. As John Lanchester wrote in a terrific piece on the City in the London Review of Books, "There is no mystery about how we got to this point: successive governments have, in policy terms, given the City more or less everything it wants." The worse the global meltdown gets, the more the voting public is less inclined to look with tolerance on the kind of excesses evoked in Geraint Anderson’s recent memoir Cityboy: Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile.
Nevertheless, Labour’s greatest opportunity for producing the fightback that is necessary to win the next General Election lies in the crisis itself. If Brown can convince the electors that his experience as Chancellor of the Exchequer makes him the only viable option, then he can win. Never mind its diplomatic function, Brown’s trip to Washington last week emphasised his credentials as the best man to handle the economic situation.
As Will Hutton exhorted in The Guardian recently, now is the time to seize power back from the markets. There are signs that Brown grasps the spirit of the moment. He told the conference unequivocally that "those who argue for the dogma of unbridled free market forces have been proved wrong. And so it falls to this party and to this government…to stabilise the still turbulent financial markets, and then in the months ahead we rebuild the world financial system around clear principles."
Whether there is sufficient time left in the electoral cycle for Labour to make a move to the left that is both credible and practical remains an open question. If Brown — as one of the architects of deregulation — is blamed for the crisis then he is as good as finished; but if the public accepts him at his word that "the world of 2008 is now so different from the world of 1997" then the PM may yet be given a chance to build what he called a "new settlement…for these new times".
Meanwhile, Cameron and the Tories do their best to appear as the party more interested in promoting equality. Their professed interest in social justice should not, however, be confused with acceptance of the tenets of social democracy.
As Matt Pennycook argued in the recent pamphlet Is the Future Conservative?, Cameron’s crew does not repudiate neoliberal economics, they simply envisage the civic institutions taking over many of the social and welfare functions of government. For this batch of Tories, "Civil society will be the magic bullet for remedying deep-seated social injustices and improving the quality of life — and a new means of dismantling large chunks of the state".
They will be hoping that Cameron can sell that idea to the electorate in his upcoming speech, along with the idea that Brown is to blame for much that has gone wrong. The party leader’s speech will be crucial. For many, Cameron’s confident, largely unscripted address to the party conference last year was the point at which the Tories’ fortunes rerally started to pick up.
For his part, Brown will be trying to turn Cameron’s style against him. Cameron is a very good performer, but Labour will be hoping that the man’s charisma brings him undone. Cameron the insubstantial, the flim-flammer, the student debater — that is how Labour will attempt to portray the Tory chief. Their hope will be that the British electorate will accept Labour’s characterisation of the leader of the Opposition as nothing more than a captivating lightweight and decide that he is not the right man to be Prime Minister in these heavy days.
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