What is Labour's line about Gordon Brown's legacy? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

We didn’t “crash the car”: what is Labour’s message on Brown’s legacy?

As the shadow business secretary’s comments blaming Gordon Brown for damaging Labour’s credibility make headlines this week, it’s worth looking closer at the party’s attitude towards their most recent PM

Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has blamed the previous Prime Minister Gordon Brown for damaging Labour’s credibility when it comes to the economy, for refusing to use the word “cuts” and giving the “impression we didn’t understand” the debt and deficit that needed to be fixed.

Umunna, during an interview with Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell in GQ magazine, criticised the former Labour leader and Chancellor for his party’s current struggle to convince voters that it can be trusted with the economy.

He homed in on the fact that Brown had refused to use the word “cuts” during the 2010 election campaign, which meant voters trusted Labour less about clearing the deficit.

The BBC reports his comments in the interview:

I do think we need to talk more proudly about our record… We do need to explain and rebut this notion that we crashed the car. My view is that the seeds were sown under the last government and Gordon [Brown] – for whom I have a lot of respect – his refusal to use the word 'cuts' [as applied to Labour] in trying to frame the economic debate as [Labour] investment versus [Tory] cuts gave the impression we didn't understand that debt and deficit would have to be dealt with.

It is notable that such a senior shadow cabinet member has been forthright about the failings of Labour’s previous PM and the way he approached the narrative on the economy during the build-up to the last general election. If this wasn’t just a one-off off-message slip, then it could spell a new direction for Labour – in the current build-up to the upcoming general election – in coming to terms with its recent history.

Up until now, the Labour party has been cagey and reticent about either celebrating or condemning its New Labour past. It is difficult for them to use Tony Blair – undeniably an incredibly successful Prime Minister, certainly electorally – as a figure to evoke enthusiasm in a wary public for a party that has undergone such controversial transformations in the past couple of decades.

As well as Blair, Gordon Brown has been a tricky individual in the modern history of the Labour party. Look at how Alistair Darling was chosen for leading Better Together, and Brown – a more senior statesman who would certainly be more recognisable to the general public – has been given a relative backseat in the Scotland debate. It’s clear that while Labour is concerned about celebrating such a divisive figure as Blair, it doesn’t quite know what to do with Brown either – a politician so roundly blamed by their opponents (and some of their own) at least in part for the financial crisis.

Indeed, Labour’s line on Brown has up until now been a soft, rather nebulous one. I have noticed this when speaking to a few shadow cabinet ministers in recent months; their line seems to be that “history will be kinder” to Gordon than the current attitude. The shadow health secretary Andy Burnham told me:

“I’m proud actually to have been in Gordon Brown’s government, and although it was a difficult time, I think history will be kinder than recent judgements have been. I’m proud of the whole of the last Labour government. I think we did some truly transformative things…”

But, just coming short of criticising Brown, he added that, “we can be proud of what Tony and Gordon did, but it doesn’t mean we have to be stuck. I think the Tories have had this with Margaret Thatcher haven’t they? New era demands new thinking demands new ideas.”

In a similar vein, the shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh told me back in March that Brown’s legacy will look much more flattering in the future than it does now:

“I think that we handled the financial crisis very well; I think Gordon’s historic role in that will be, I think history will be kinder to him than the current chatterati are. Because he and Alistair took the big decisions about what needed to happen to stop a global financial meltdown… the alternatives of what could’ve happened – which were not spoken about at the time to avoid panic but were clear – that money ceases to have a value, and people lose confidence, the cash machines don’t work on a Monday morning, so the whole economy stops. That was a very close shave.”

It seems that senior Labour figures have tried to maintain a positive message about Brown, but the line about framing him in history does suggest they are trying gently to put Labour’s Brown days behind them. Perhaps Umunna’s recent remarks will compound that attempt, and not so gently this time.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Commission event. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.