What is Labour's line about Gordon Brown's legacy? Photo: Getty
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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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons
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Donald Trump brings home his dark vision of America at the Republican convention

The Presidential nominee pledged: "Safety must be restored."

Donald Trump brought home the Republican convention Thursday night with a dark vision of contemporary America – a darkness he claimed only his leadership could lift. It was a lengthy, tightly-scripted speech framed around polarities – insiders and outsiders, criminals and victims, the United States and the rest of the world – and infused with righteous anger. And yet against the darkness, he offered not lightness but “greatness” – a bombastic, personalistic vision of how through sheer force of will he could right the American ship before it plunged irretrievably into the depths. “I alone can solve,” he famously tweeted earlier in the campaign. This was the 80-minute version.

Any presidential challenger, of course, has to lay out a set of problems they believe need fixing and a case for why their leadership might make a difference. It was the breathtaking scale and intensity of Trump’s diagnosis, and the lack of optimistic alternative to counterbalance it, that was notable compared to other acceptance speeches. He portrayed the United States as a country riddled with crime and corruption, a “rigged system” in which politicians like Hillary Clinton can evade justice, while police officers trying to protect its citizens become targets; a fearful country, its economy sluggish, its infrastructure crumbling, its security an illusion, and its international stature in freefall

For a candidate who has mocked the soaring rhetoric of President Obama (the “hopey-changey stuff,” as Sarah Palin once called it), it was perhaps not surprising that Trump’s speech would be short on uplift. It was at least more disciplined than his other campaign speeches, if in keeping with their tone and content – the much-maligned teleprompter rolling a script to which he largely stuck. (“He sounds presidential,” a lady behind me remarked, though his press conference Friday morning marked a reversion to free-wheeling form).

It was short on substance too, though acceptance speeches aren’t designed to be policy laundry lists like a State of the Union. Still, there were few specifics, beyond a pledge to revise tax laws which inhibit religious groups from political advocacy, and a newfound concern with student loans. It was daughter Ivanka’s speech that had the greater substantive heft, promising her father would push for new labour laws to help working mothers, and for affordable childcare in the US. Neither are traditional Republican positions, but the crowd seemed on board for anything Trump might offer.

He even had them cheering for LGBTQ rights, after recalling the tragedy in Florida last month, and the need to protect gay Americans from a “hateful foreign ideology” in radical Islam. “It is so nice as a Republican to hear you cheering for what I just said,” he commended the delegates in an unscripted moment. But whether they had really embraced this unexpected message – or if it was the anti-terror chaser that really got them on their feet – remains to be seen. In either case, it was a rare grace note in an otherwise bruising speech.

Presenting himself repeatedly as the candidate of “law and order,” Trump evoked Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. At a time when American cities were erupting in race riots and protests over the Vietnam War, Nixon had pitched himself as the face of stability and security. Likewise Trump has reacted to the simmering racial tensions and terrorist attacks this summer with a hard-line stance on “lawlessness.” “Safety must be restored,” Trump said, in one of the eerier lines he delivered. Yet in his convention speech, Nixon had balanced his tough talk with a positive message – speaking of love, courage, and lighting a “lamp of hope” in partnership with the American people. 

Trump channeled another president in his speech, too, when he promised to give voice to “the forgotten men and women of our country” – drawing on the language of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt had promised to aid “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” during the 1932 campaign. But Roosevelt’s solution to the forgotten man’s distress was economic internationalism – tearing down tariff walls and trading freely with the world – which the Republican Party then opposed. Trump’s solution is the protectionist policies Roosevelt had railed against.

Trump’s economic and security philosophy is encapsulated in another, more notorious phrase associated with that era: “America First.” A rallying cry for isolationists seeking to avoid US entanglement in World War II, it acquired an anti-Semitic taint. But Trump has employed it nonetheless, capturing as it does his core argument that America must do more to protect its own citizens against threats from within and without – from illegal immigrants, from radicalized Islamic terrorists, from the downsides of free international trade. Little wonder that former George W.

Bush staffer Nicolle Wallace announced that the Republican party she knew “died in this room tonight.” In embracing elements of isolationism, protectionism, and nativism, however, it is perhaps truer to say that Trump’s Republican party reverted to an earlier form.

Often disconcerting, at times mesmerizing, the question remains how effective this speech will be. The delegates responded enthusiastically to Trump’s fierce rhetoric, but many prominent Republicans had stayed away from the convention altogether. Combined with Senator Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement, Trump goes into the general election campaign without a fully united party behind him. For both partisans and the public, Trump’s speech offered a cast of villains to rally against, but no positive, unifying vision to rally behind – beyond the much-touted yet elusive “greatness,” of course. In a typical election year, that would seem a critical flaw in a campaign – but Trump loves to confound the naysayers. As his convention speech showed, he thinks the formula that got him this far - showcasing his fame and fanning Americans’ fears – can land him in the White House.