On enemy territory

His desire to outflank the Tories on the right has distorted Gordon Brown's thinking

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It has become something of a sport for the tormentors of the Prime Minister to pick apart his speeches for borrowings from across the water.

So it was that Gordon Brown's speechwriters were revealed by the Times to have lifted a few key phrases and ideas from Al Gore, Bill Clinton and John Kerry for his first Labour conference address last September in Bournemouth.

This time it was Barack Obama's turn to provide the inspiration. Brown's claim, in his speech at Labour's spring con ference a few days ago, that he would bring "a new politics that places power and the opportunity to change things in the hands of people themselves", was identified by the Telegraph as coming straight from the cheery lexicon of the young senator from Illinois. This is undoubtedly diverting, but does it really get us anywhere? It's only a month, after all, since Obama himself was accused of plagiarising a 2006 speech by a friend of his, the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick.

Political speechwriting is the art of projecting optimism - making your audience believe your candidate represents the sunny uplands of the future. There are only so many ways you can say the same thing, as students of rhetoric know full well.

In reality, what is striking about the language used by Brown is that it is almost completely anodyne. What's more, it could just as easily have found its way into a speech by Nick Clegg or David Cameron. "Opportunity", "aspiration", "change", are all concepts that would be difficult not to sign up to. They are specifically designed to be stripped of any suggestion of political ideology or commitment. In the stampede for the centre ground, it's important not to scare the horses.

Although in themselves there is no great scandal in these minor acts of political theft, Brown's borrowings from US Democrats reveal a greater truth about the origins of his political philosophy. Brown has always been the arch-"triangulator" of British politics. Triangulation is now so embedded in our political culture that it is difficult to remember that it is a relatively recent innovation. Usually attributed to Bill Clinton's political adviser Dick Morris, it was designed initially as a strategy to outflank the Republicans on the right and persuade the American electorate that the Democrats were distancing themselves from their liberal past. But it soon became second nature to Clinton.

According to the investigative journalist Bob Woodward, Clinton gave an impromptu, sarcastic speech to his staff in April 1993 in which he said: "I hope you're all aware we're Eisenhower Republicans. We're all Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?" Yet his sarcasm hid a deeper reality.

Toffs and Thatcherites

Triangulation, that most pernicious of political imports, has so infected Brown's mind that, like Clinton, he can no longer help himself. In his early months in office, the desire to wrong-foot the Tories has dominated his thinking. The arbitrary desire to increase detention without charge to 42 days, the retention of the ID card scheme, "Titan" jails, the plans to remove benefits from drug offenders and housing from the work-shy, the latest crackdown on immigration - the list just goes on. Add to these the retreat on inheritance tax and the failure to face down the "non-dom" lobby, and we find ourselves in a near-perfect Clintonian moment.

The trouble with moving so far into enemy territory is that you risk leaving yourself exposed on home ground. It may well be that the Labour government, in its desire to outflank the Tories on the right, has lost its grip on core Labour policy areas such as health and education, about which voters are already beginning to ask where all the money has gone.

So it is that the latest Labour attacks on the Tories nationally and in the London mayoral elections have amounted to little more than a statement of the obvious - if you don't vote for Gordon or Ken, you will end up with David or Boris. This may well be a horrifying prospect for Labour activists and most readers of this magazine, but it is no longer quite sufficient for the government and its cheerleaders to dismiss the Tories as toffs with no policies who would take the country back to the Thatcherite dark ages. The Tories have been doing some reverse triangulation of their own in an attempt to rebrand themselves as green civil libertarians with a new-found empathy for the poor. Cynical as this may seem, it is beginning to pay dividends.

It is not insignificant that three icons of liberal Britain have given a cautious welcome to Conservative ideas in recent days. Trevor Phillips had already praised Cameron in November for breaking with reactionary Tory tradition on immigration. The chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has long shared some of Cameron's concerns about multiculturalism, and at the end of last month hosted a debate at which the Tory leader delivered a speech on the issue. Meanwhile, the Tories' recent ideas on the penal system were not met with the usual barrage of contempt from liberal Britain. Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust welcomed the new emphasis on rehabilitation and challenged the government to rise to the challenge. Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, doyen of the liberal commentariat, was similarly generous in response to Boris Johnson's detailed transport proposals for London. Writing in the London Evening Standard, Travers hinted that the Tories are beginning to out-triangulate Mayor Livingstone: "Taken together, the Boris transport manifesto is mildly 'right-wing' on law and order, in that there will be additional policing, live CCTV and new punishments. But apart from that, it is without political leanings. The contents are designed to convince voters that Johnson has joined the sensible party." The polls suggest they are beginning to be persuaded.

Mrs Triangulation

In response, Labour is giving the impression that it is running out of ideas, falling back on the debased politics of the "lesser evil". This was evident at the spring conference, as speaker after speaker warned of the dangers of Johnson winning London. This boiled down to the fact that the Tory candidate is posh and possibly a racist. Attacks on Cameron often amount to little more than an observation of his class background.

To be fair, I have to say this is not an entirely original idea. "Lesser evil calculus" was coined by Christopher Hitchens in his 1999 book on the Clintons, No One Left to Lie To. Anyone wishing to understand the politics of new Labour should re-read this evisceration of the New Democrats.

This brings us once again to what Hitchens referred to as America's "worst family". Tellingly, Hillary Clinton was given the nickname "Mrs Triangulation" as far back as 2005, thanks to her flawless right-wing approach to politics.

There is now the real possibility that the politics of triangulation has run its course on the left of British politics. At the same time, the possibility has emerged that the Conservatives' rather sophisticated version is allowing them to beat Brown at his own game. In response to this, it is no longer sustainable for the Labour Party simply to raise the bogeyman of the decadent Etonian fop. This is just not a grown-up argument. It is as if Labour Party strategy is now inspired by Hilaire Belloc's morality verse for children "Jim", which contains the lines: "Always keep a-hold of nurse/For fear of finding something worse." The British electorate has been duly warned. But can it be convinced it really needs to keep a-hold of Nurse Gordon any more?

This article appears in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

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