Pragmatism, or a genuine sympathy with Tory values?

To understand the nature of current British politics, it would have been instructive for NS readers to have attended the Daily Telegraph's late-night party at the Labour conference. The Prime Minister duly attended, paying as much homage to the august newspaper as he did a few weeks earlier to its heroine, Margaret Thatcher. Is all this a cynical ploy to keep the right on board (perhaps a better word would be "pragmatic"), or a sincere conversion to many of the same value systems? This question is crucial in determining the politics Gordon Brown is seeking to forge as he toys with the tantalising prospect of a snap election.

After Brown and his entourage left the Telegraph gathering, many prominent guests spoke in wonderment about their departed guest. Some talked openly of their disdain for David Cameron and everything he has come to personify. The newspaper, for so long described as the bible of the Conservative Party, is unlikely to endorse Labour at the election (although nothing in this new world of cross-dressing politics should be ruled out), but it will temper its criticism of the government and it will play down its endorsement of the Tories. Its readers will duly take note. For Brown's people that will be a job very well done. The same rules apply, in starker relief, to the Daily Mail and the Sun. This is a case of back to the future. Tony Blair adopted exactly the same approach from the moment he became Labour leader in 1994. It lasted about five years, only to prompt a bitter backlash.

How should those who subscribe to our kind of left-radical politics respond? First, one should acknowledge, and linger on, the many positive aspects of Brown's first conference speech and first few months as leader. His commitment (details still to be determined) to increase the number of young people going through further and higher education is admirable. The use of dormant bank accounts to finance more youth centres is sensible. The increase in the length of maternity pay is hard-won. The plan to build more social housing is overdue, but welcome still. Brown was right to focus on the quality of local schools, on GP opening hours and on the cleanliness of hospitals. It is on issues such as these that most votes are cast - as they should be.

Considerable progress is also being made on the international front. In his speech the following day, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, vowed that never again would this government rush to war as it did in Iraq. Military action, he declared, was never an end in itself. For the millions who deserted Labour over Blair's hubristic global approach, this was an important moment. Also, in a brazen challenge to those same Eurosceptic newspapers, he made it clear that Britain would not, come what may, have a referendum on the new EU amending treaty.

Miliband talked of priorities that go beyond the hackneyed debate of "Europe or America?", supporting the rights of Brazil, India, South Africa and Japan to have permanent seats on the UN Security Council. He and Brown spoke of the need for concerted action to stand up for human rights from Darfur to Burma, where dramatic events are unfolding (see page 16). NS readers voted Aung San Suu Kyi their "hero of our time" and, whatever the past complacency, we applaud all international efforts to restore democracy to that benighted country.

Certain aspects of Brown's pitch have been less savoury, however. As Roy Hattersley argues on page 8, patriotism should not be the preserve of the right. But more than once his speech had a tinge of xenophobia. The subtext was: I will help you, hardy Brits, fend off those dastardly foreigners, with their chill economic winds, illegal drugs and other perils. This Labour government has every right, indeed obligation, to tackle the insecurities that globalisation is producing; but it must do so without resorting to sinister populism. Brown is said to be planning to focus on immigration in the coming weeks. He should be careful about the language used. The Prime Minister's speech was criticised by some as lacking an overriding philosophy. There will be time to address that. The purpose of this occasion was almost to introduce him to voters. He is a man with old-fashioned values, of no little asceticism, but imbued with passion and conviction. There are many areas of policy where he may manage to appeal to both left-radicals and readers of, say, the Telegraph. One of his earliest announcements - stopping the supercasinos and the exploitation of the vulnerable by gambling firms - falls into this category.

But in other areas, Brown will have to show his colours. When he talks about discipline and responsibility, how will that idea apply to the excesses of the boardroom? There is little evidence that this government is prepared to take difficult decisions, through taxation, or elsewhere, in order to tackle inequality.

Labour's new leader does not have to choose between two constituencies. Those on the left know that, whether they like it or not, elections are won in the centre ground, in a few dozen marginal seats. Brown left Bournemouth with his party in better cheer than it has been for years. Activists feel they have a genuine Labour man in charge who shares their desire to make Britain a fairer place. They, too, yearn for another election victory that could send the Conservatives into an even longer period of decline.

They know he will have to make tactical concessions to that end, but they worry when his professed admiration for past Tory icons - and their value systems - sounds a little too fervent for comfort.

This article first appeared in Spies and their lies

2007-10-01