Vote Brown: get Blair!

The activists are waiting in vain: there is no left turn ahead. If Gordon Brown's record to date is

Gordon Brown is an impatient man whom fate has condemned to wait. As a 16-year-old, he was made to lie still for months in a doomed attempt to save the retina of his left eye. He endured 14 long years of political opposition. And he has played second fiddle to Tony Blair for more than a decade.

Brown is not the only one waiting. Swathes of the Labour Party, the bulk of the union movement and most left-of-centre lobby groups and policy think-tanks are longing for the baton to pass to a true Labour politician, a man with socialism in his bones. Blair won the respect of his party because of his brilliance as a vote harvester; but Brown always had their hearts. Under Brown, the activists believe, Labour will be coming home.

But love has made them blind. There is no left turn ahead. If Brown's record to date is any guide, his premiership will be more Blairite than Tony Blair's. There are, of course, many areas where there are few indications of what a Brownite future would bring, such as foreign policy, constitutional reform and civil liberty. Having spent his political life in opposition - first to the Conservatives and then to the Blairites - Brown has been able to avoid the 360-degree glare of scrutiny that comes with leadership. As Chancellor, however, Brown has given us a good idea of what kind of PM he would make, and the uncomfortable truth is that the barbs most commonly aimed at Blair stick at least as convincingly to Brown.

It is said that Blair is a chameleon, changing colours to suit his audience. All politicians do this, but few do it so well as Brown. Anyone who has heard him address a Tribune rally, quoting Bevan, thundering at social injustice, and then addressing the Confederation of British Industry, telling tame jokes, pledging flexibility in the labour market and iron discipline in fiscal policy, might be forgiven for wondering if they had seen the same man. Brown can pen rabidly anti-European articles - such as the piece last year in the Wall Street Journal - on one day and give warm speeches about Europe on another. Blair has rarely gone out of his way to please a Labour audience, preferring to confront it with what he sees as the hard truth. You may not like Blair, but at least what you see is what you get.

Blair is accused of being obsessed with spin, concerned with the headlines rather than the substance. True enough - although in recent years he has become increasingly obsessed with not wanting to be seen as obsessed with short-term popularity. But Brown and his allies have long been masters of the off-the-record briefing, selected leak and repackaging of old policies as new initiatives. And it can hardly be said that Brown has been more respectful of the Commons than Blair. One of the fiercest early rows between Blair and Brown took place when the Chancellor leaked some of the highlights of his Budget to the Guardian.

An important plank of Labour's presentational success has been its ability to keep Rupert Murdoch onside, or at least in the neutral camp. The courting of Murdoch by Blair has stuck in the throats of many on the left, not least among the Hampstead liberal set. But, again, Brown has to be found guilty, too. He assiduously maintains a cordial relationship with Irwin Stelzer, Murdoch's pointsman. His views on Europe have recently become much more acceptable to the media mogul.

Blair is accused of being too pro-market in his economic philosophy. And it is certainly the case that he is much more enamoured of wealthy entrepreneurs than his neighbour. Blair is the one driving the expansion of academies in secondary education - which trade curriculum control for private cash - and greater choice in healthcare. Brown successfully stood against giving foundation hospitals more power to borrow on the private capital markets. He is lukewarm about choice as a mechanism for improving public services.

But Brown was zealously behind the private finance initiative, levering private cash on often dubious terms into state infrastructure projects. Even when the weight of expert and political opinion was against the involvement of the private sector - in the case of London Underground, for example - Brown was adamant where Blair was ambivalent. In macroeconomics, Brown has led the accommodation between Labour and the central tenets of free-market economics: securing low inflation, reducing state borrowing and debt, and reducing corporation taxes.

In a lecture to the Royal Economic Society in 2000, Brown said that the economic analysis of Milton Friedman - hero to the Thatcherites - had been right; it was only his monetary prescriptions that were wrong. (You can bet Brown won't be praising Friedman in Brighton.) Handing control of interest rates to the Bank of England, in a stunning move in his first days as Chancellor, was a policy taken from the play books of the right-wing economists. Blair and Brown are both free-marketeers, but Brown has had more chance to prove it.

Another charge levelled at Blair, especially in the wake of the Iraq war, is that he is undemocratic in his style. The cabinet has generally been for little more than show; the House of Commons has been considered a necessary inconvenience, and the Parliamentary Labour Party a political Jurassic Park. But Brown makes Blair look like a model of democratic openness. Brown is often contemptuous of those outside his inner circle of allies and advisers. Policies are typically made in small groups, in semi-secret, and then handed to the civil servants to implement. Blair has been much mocked for his attempts to build "big tent politics", yet it is inconceivable that Brown would even bother. A small bivouac would suffice.

Those who believe that a Brown premiership will usher in greater consultation, a stronger cabinet, enhanced parliamentary scrutiny and wider policy debate are in for a shock. Similarly, it is hard to see that Brown will make a better fist of humility than Blair. The Prime Minister has at least come close to publicly admitting fault. But it takes a huge leap of the imagination to picture Brown saying over the tax credit debacle, for example, the following three words: "I am sorry." Or try these: "I was wrong."

Of course, there is another side to the story. Brown has implemented the New Deal for the unemployed, increased the incomes of the poor and poured money into public services during the second term. On the whole, however, the record of the PM-in-waiting suggests that he will be as right-wing, centralising and image-obsessed as his predecessor. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the enthusiasm for the Chancellor is that it will be entirely counter-productive. The more Brown is applauded as a lefty, the harder he will have to work to demonstrate to the electorate - and the press - that he is not.

The first steps in this journey were taken this month at the TUC, where Brown delivered a deliberately crowd-displeasing speech. It would be typical of the arch-strategist Brown to be already planning a set-piece battle with the unions and left of the Labour Party. How about privatising Jobcentres? It would fit with his desire to inject more dynamism into back-to-work schemes without getting into the more dangerous territory of health or education. More importantly, it would annoy the hell out of the public sector unions and loosen the electorally dangerous perception that he is old Labour returned.

At the last election, the Conservatives toyed with the idea of using the prospect of a Brown premiership to scare voters ("Vote Blair, get Brown"), until they realised he was more popular than the incumbent. Yet the idea that Gordon Brown is to the left of Tony Blair is wrong. In many important respects, he is more "new" than the PM himself. The truth for the Labour Party when it comes to elect its next leader is stark: vote Brown, get Blair.