Group hug

Gordon Brown has persuaded many that he is the "real thing", but that just shows we hardly know how

There was a time when almost everyone said that Tony Blair would be a very hard act to follow. They were wrong. Gordon Brown - not flash, just Gordon - has begun the second act of new Labour like the seasoned pro he is. Following the consummate actor-politician style of Blair meant that Brown has been allowed to represent himself as the real thing. Confused as we now are about what constitutes reality, many have breathed a sigh of relief. The bizarre spasm of outraged naivety that occurred at the beginning of Brown's tenure, over the fact that some things we see on TV are . . . er . . . made up, was but another symptom of our anxiety about what and whom can be trusted.

At the moment, we are liking this return of the real shtick partly because we can read whatever we like into it. There is a kind of unanticipated group hug going on between Brown and much of the media that is bound at some stage to end in tears. Right now, though, the consensus is that Brown has done very well indeed, outflanking opponents from both the left and the right. David Cameron, who once looked like the future, is flailing because he looks flimsy and fake compared to the unflashy son of a preacher man. He has little room to manoeuvre while he has to fight the ghouls in his own party.

Brown can do pretty much anything he wants at the moment and is sending out so many contradictory messages that they cancel each other out. But, strangely, we continue to accept that no spin is the new spin. Saatchi & Saatchi will be paid a fortune to tell us exactly this, for Brown is working as carefully on his image as Blair ever did while at the same time telling us that this really isn't his thing at all.

What came naturally to Blair - being all things to all men - is hard work for Gordon, but we know he likes to work. Non-stop. That's why I say: don't simply believe the hype, try squaring it with the reality. Ask yourself how a social conservative can bang on about the progressive consensus. How a man who wants "citizens' juries" is stopping delegates voting at their own party conference. How a pusher of PFI can bully public sector workers into not asking for more money. How he continues to defend the in vasion of Iraq when even people such as Alan Greenspan will now say it was largely about oil. How the purveyor of new politics has so few women around him. How he is going to generate grass-roots re-engagement with the political process from the top down.

Some of this is about sheer nous, cunning, cleverness, realpolitik, whatever you want to call it. But there will come a time when this self-proclaimed conviction politician has to show us his convictions. We think we know what Brown's are, and they involve words like work, duty, alt ruism, civic responsibility. We know little about his foreign policy. His gnomic pronouncements about needing to go beyond "a narrow debate between states and markets" in order to find solutions to many of our problems surely make us see that this man of substance is really rather vague on many issues. Perhaps this is what the new politics is actually about, and we just want someone who seems to be purposely getting on with the job to keep up appearances.

The aura of authenticity that Brown is cultivating is incredibly important: it allows him to claim the future but also to reference the past, when politicians didn't have to worry about effeminate stuff like style so much. But it is also indicative of what happens when politics moves to the centre and difference dissipates. When left and right become indistinguishable, what matters is not what people say but whether we think they really mean it. This is Cameron's problem. His ease and charm now look insincere up against Brown's brusqueness. Yet it wasn't only the Tories who underestimated Brown's appeal. His own side appear quite dazed and confused. For years, they were so dependent on Blair's charisma that they can't quite believe how it vanished into thin air overnight.

What can the opposition do? They can offer us politicians who are also extremely good at acting unspun, like Boris Johnson. They could move to a more libertarian position to counter Brown's innate puritanism. They could venture further inside the big tent, but they must know that Brown wants not only to win the election, but to obliterate them as a political force for ever.

Because the Conservatives are so boxed in, they are choosing to fight over the difficult territory of social breakdown.

Labour has been in denial about the growing social fragmentation it has presided over. A discourse of social justice and equality should come naturally to Brown, but it's tricky, because at some point he will somehow need to explain how the decline in social mobility took place on his watch. He is, of course, right to say that solutions will not come from narrow debates about states and markets, but it is now clear - even to the Tories - that they cannot be left to markets alone. Even on something so obviously sensible and popular as banning food additives, Brown seems remarkably reluctant to take on big business.

Closing our minds

The visceral distaste for the workless hordes who live on incapacity benefit with their dan gerous dogs and hooded children appears now also to be shared equally between right and left. The hard-working families beloved of Brown, the so-called respectable working classes, are acceptable. Those at the very bottom are seen as responsible for their own demise. It is a joke, however, to talk of social cohesion and even quality of life if we are closing our minds to such people and closing down their escape routes.

Brown could take on this argument much more forcefully by talking of our moral as well as political obligations. There is clearly room to do so if he chooses; just look at the middle-class revulsion at huge City bonuses.

If he dares, Brown will show that he has convictions instead of just telling us that he does. Conviction is part of this new image, too. Replacing old-fashioned ideology as the crucial political accessory, conviction sounds like gut instinct, absolute certainty like faith. It sounds a lot better than the pick'n'mix value system that Brown has pursued like all other important politicians of his generation. For he is both the man whom supporters say promoted redistribution by stealth and the man who facilitated the very PFI deals that may yet bankrupt the public sector in 15 years' time.

What is becoming apparent is not how much we know about Brown after a decade, but how little we are sure of. His solidity melts into air. The collective relief that now we are governed by a man's man who isn't going to do all that overemoting is still tangible. But - and it's a big but - have we really entered the age of seriousness, where fakery is despised and substance has at long last replaced style?

I wait to be convinced. Brown's style is actually what people are responding to right now. He has persuaded many that he is the real thing - even better than the real thing - which only goes to show we hardly know how to define the real any more.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times