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.

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.