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23 September 2008

Brown’s comeback

In all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists

By Jessica Asato

Gordon Brown’s Labour Conference speech was never going to be the ‘make-or-break’ point which many commentators were trying to engineer, but he certainly used the opportunity to take on his critics and win back the public. 

Progress’s editorial (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=3379) in its conference edition of the magazine argued that the crucial thing the Prime Minister should do in his speech was to take responsibility for the government’s mistakes in the last year, and the 10p tax debacle in particular. So it was good to see that he admitted early on in the speech that it was indeed a mistake and that taking the side of hard-working families will be a priority henceforth. It wasn’t as explicit an apology as Tony Blair made over the 75p pension rise in 2000, but it was welcome nevertheless.

We also suggested that the PM should use his speech to argue that the government can no longer make the changes to Britain it seeks by governing by central dictat and that there needed to be a new contract between citizen and state. There was a reference to the changing role of the state when Gordon said: “Let us be clear the modern role of government is not to provide everything, but it must be to enable everyone.” It was a shame, however that he didn’t go much further than that.

There were other elements which suggested he’d listened to people’s concerns. For instance it was a good move to pledge that as families have to “make economies to make ends meet” so the government too “will ensure that we get value for money out of every single pound” of taxpayers’ money. Though he didn’t go as far as we did and suggest that the size of Whitehall should be cut by a quarter or that the number of government ministers should be whittled down, but I guess he needs as many members of the PLP on the payroll as possible at the moment…

Progress has long campaigned for greater UK commitment to expose and act on the human rights abuses in Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur, so Gordon’s reiterated plea from last year’s conference speech that the words ‘never again’ should not become “just a slogan” and should be instead “the crucible in which our values are tested” was welcome. But as in so many areas of government, the fine words of a speech are barely translated into practice when the stage set is dismantled. Let’s hope that this year sees more action from our government in putting pressure on those regimes which think they can transgress international law without fear of retaliation.

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I wasn’t so sure whether the more populist measures in the speech might be storing up problems for the future. For example, while I can see why those suffering from cancer will see real benefit from the pledge to not charge for their prescriptions, won’t this simply create even more inconsistency in an already byzantine system of charges and how do we respond to patients with other potentially life-threatening illnesses? More popular on the doorstep by far would have been to agree to abolish hospital car parking charges and telephone charges.

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I also wasn’t convinced that the move to charge migrants for use of public services will work in practice and doesn’t it send the wrong signal at a time when our economy will increasingly rely on migrant labour? Are we ready to charge them for the use of schools and surely not for emergency health care?

But in all it was a well-executed speech for a Prime Minister under siege and as ministers and activists pore over the detail in the weeks to come, it may well provide the starting point for a wider debate about the direction of the government and party.