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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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