Low charisma, high values

Paola Totaro, London bureau chief for the Sydney Morning Herald, is baffled as to why Gordon Brown g

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”.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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