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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

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

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.