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18 August 2015

Why I was right to criticise Gordon Brown’s economic credibility

My attack on our last Prime Minister's economic record resulted in brickbats online - but we have to be honest abour our failures, says Labour MP Clive Lewis.

By Clive Lewis

The need for heroes, to admire them, to be inspired by them, runs deep in our cultural and social make-up.

And with good reason – such figures epitomise the nobler sentiments of the human condition. Not only that, in times of existential angst or threat, they provide beacons of hope for something better.

For many in our party – a party going through an existential crisis at present – heroes are very much in demand. For some that hero for hope of something better is Jeremy Corbyn.

But whilst Corbyn maybe a hero to some, to others he represents the embodiment of despair, chaos – the loss of the established order. Even to those undecided about him, the need for more familiar, guiding, reassuring figures at this time is palpable.

Enter: Gordon Brown.

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With Tony Blair effectively damaged goods in the eyes of both country and party, it fell upon Brown to step up and repeat what he’d managed in the Scottish referendum and stop Corbyn’s momentum.

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But despite our need for heroes at this time, does that mean we should suspend all criticism of them and their record? Especially when they attempt to steer the future of our party in their desired direction?

There’s clearly much to admire in Brown, his achievements in government we’re many: lifting millions out of poverty, tax credits, Sure Start, the New Deal – the list is truly impressive. But as well as achievements there were also the failures.

As we now know New Labour failed to change the underlying economic architecture of Thatcherism. It meant our greatest achievements, mentioned above, were effectively built on sand. In just five years the Tory led coalition in effect dismantled almost all of them.

To his credit Brown himself has admitted he made a “big mistake » with the lack of regulation of the banks and financial sector.  He extended and deepened a process that, launched by Thatcher, drove the economy into the 2008 crash. .

Listen to his Mansion House speech in 2006 and you can hear him boast of “light touch regulation », urge on the forerunner of what would eventually become the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and talk of spurning European initiatives aimed at harmonising corporation tax rates – something that would have headed off the race to the bottom Europe is currently facing.

The following year, with the first rumblings of the financial conflagration that became the 2008 crash making themselves heard, Brown returned to Mansion House to talk of “an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.”

He also handed over control of our monetary policy (Bank of England independence) to a cabal of unelected technocrats and bankers, initiated £500 billion worth of PFI debt, presided over a lower level of overall taxation  than under Margaret Thatcher (cutting corporation tax despite surging corporate profits) and saw growing levels of overall wealth inequality.

Some in the party reading this will ask why am I saying this? Why am I doing the Tories work for them by ‘trashing’ our economic record? What right do I have as a new MP to do this to a giant of the labour movement?

The answer is a question – How can we not? How can we fail to analyse both what we got right and what we got wrong? Without learning those lessons we’re surely doomed to repeat them? How can we ever be economically credible when we won’t even analyse where we went wrong?

We’ve spoken for months now about “learning the lessons of 2015 « . But merely looking back to 2010 and after to understand our current predicament is like asking a history student to look back no further than 1914 to understand the causes of the First World War.

Central to being a humanist, which I am, is the core understanding that doubt and criticism are essential attributes in the quest for knowledge. This sceptical approach underpins contemporary science. Clearly politics sometimes requires a more nuanced, less binary, approach. Whoever is elected leader in September, will mean that politically we’ll need to reduce our criticism and scepticism and adopt the appropriate values of support and solidarity as we look to defeat the Tories in 2020.

But here and now is not the time, as the intense debate for the future of our Party rages, for unquestioning hero worship and rose-tinted analysis of our economic record in government.

If we’re serious about power, about real economic credibility, tough questions have to be asked. That means politicians like Gordon Brown, who made many of those decisions and still claims an inherent understanding of what economic credibility is, must also find their records challenged and questioned.

Anything less would be a betrayal to the people we’ve come into politics to help.

Clive Lewis is the MP for Norwich South.