The first time I saw Gordon Brown, my glasses fogged up. It was April 2008, and we were at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha in Ilford, east London, on the Ken Livingstone campaign trail for re-election as London mayor. Maybe my misty vision was less a reaction to the PM’s presence, and had more to do with the unseasonably icy weather and how, during a moment’s refuge in the toilets of the Sikh temple, I’d dropped the glasses down the S-bend. Nonetheless, that day Brown triggered a response within me that the intervening year has not changed.
I had arrived in London to take over the Sydney Morning Herald’s European bureau, smack bang in the middle of the bout for London’s mayoral chain. It was clear that the Boris v Ken show was no ordinary municipal poll; but it was the media coverage of Gordon Brown that had me mesmerised. Day after day, the papers were filled not just with shrieking economic headlines, but with a cacophony of moaning and bitching from a cabal of Labour ministers and backbenchers who seemed utterly at ease airing their despair about Brown’s leadership in public.
As a former political editor blooded by years of reporting the Labor Right – the conservative wing of the Australian Labor Party, and a rough, tough, mongrel breed, famous for their party discipline – I found this complete lack of control fascinating. Was it Brown’s lack of authority, or was this how Labour politics in the UK always played out? I was intrigued, and the mayoral campaign became my opportunity to observe Britain’s political leadership at first hand.
That morning in Ilford, Brown delivered a quiet, well-received speech about justice, notions of hard work and tolerance between communities. Later, I shadowed him as he did an awkward walk through the room, shaking hands, patting backs and doling out halting “Good to see you”s. He appeared shy – well versed in the demands of parish-pump politics, yet uncomfortable with small talk. I decided then that I rather liked him.
The weeks and months that followed turned out to be shockers for Brown. First the disastrous council elections, then poll after poll that seemed to head ever southward. Calls to backbench Labour MPs revealed no binding caucus, no ferocious factions – and no shame in bagging your leader to any journalist. Brown’s clannishness and impatience with dissent were all too visible. Labour seemed to have thrown in the towel and yet, from what I could see, the contest hadn’t really started.
Still, none of this explained the particularly virulent nature of Brown’s media coverage. Whatever his failings, he had been chancellor during a period of unmatched growth in Britain. And where is the proof that his policies – or George W Bush’s, or Kevin Rudd’s in Australia – are directly to blame for the economic troubles of the world now? Behind the scenes at the World Economic Forum in Davos, economists and observers spoke about Brown with respect. He was the first leader to take the huge step of recapitalising a bank, a strategy now followed the world over; in the United States, his speech to Congress was well received. No doubt he is a policy wonk who lacks charisma. But didn’t the British media turn on Tony Blair for being too slick, too good at communication? What is it exactly the UK wants in a leader?
When Gordon Brown delivered his keynote address to the Labour conference last September, he spoke stolidly, with no great shot of memorable brilliance or humour. But he got me. I wrote then that the impact of his speech lay in the lack of spin – and a visceral sense that he believes what he says. His delivery can be diffident, at times monotone. And that smile always looks forced and slightly canine. But his sense of civil service, the desire to see change through, the belief that poverty and problems with public health and education can be tackled successfully are all there – if just a few messengers would allow themselves to see it.
When he is outside the mainstream, Brown seems a different leader. At a couple of panel discussions in Davos, he had the audience in genuine waves of laughter (OK, it was an economist’s joke). At the party conference, he spoke with humanity about the near loss of sight in his right eye, saved by treatment provided by the National Health Service that his parents could never have afforded otherwise. His plea for a “fair” Britain can be dismissed as cynical pork-barrelling, but I have watched enough politicians of all colours to know those for whom these values mean something, personally and politically. “I know what I believe. I know who I am. I know what I want to do in this job,” he said.
The next general election is not expected until 2010. Ultimately, the key to Brown’s chances is the economy. During the next 12 months, there are three possible scenarios, two of which favour Labour. A deepening crisis, with rising unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies, would allow him to argue that handing the nation to the untried opposition is just too much of a risk. The second scenario sees the tide turning, but only just. With the stock market steadying and liquidity beginning to return, unemployment may still be a burgeoning problem – but economists are starting to say that the worst may be over. Brown can then campaign on the message that his strategies have started to reap reward, but the country isn’t out of the woods yet. Again, a change of leadership and policy could threaten what has been achieved.
The third set of circumstances is the most difficult for Brown – but the most unlikely. If the economy reaches the road to recovery before the election, he can take credit for the upturn. Recent polls show that the public acknowledges his strengths. Yet voters have an undeniable sense, too, that David Cameron can be a leader for the future.
Brown’s current position reminds me of the situation that once faced Paul Keating, the Australian prime minister of the early and mid-1990s. He, too, was an ambitious former treasurer who replaced an enormously popular and charismatic PM, Bob Hawke. Like Brown, Keating had been an architect of his predecessor’s success – and he then governed through a recession before winning an election that everyone, and most particularly the media, thought he would lose.
Brown urgently needs to follow Keating’s example and start showing more of his innate strengths – and must remember that self-belief can be perceived as arrogance. Who knows? Then he might emulate Keating and pull off his own “sweetest victory of all”.