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11 November 2015

Gordon Brown delivers a warning to George Osborne – and to Labour

After blitzing the Chancellor's tax credit arguments, Brown told his party that it needed to be "popular, electable, credible". 

By George Eaton

A grand alliance has condemned George Osborne’s planned cuts to tax credits: Labour, the Sun, the work and pensions select committee, Tory backbenchers, Boris Johnson and the Adam Smith Institute. Today, it was the turn of their creator: Gordon Brown. Delivering the Child Poverty Action Group 50th anniversary lecture, he hailed the redistributive instruments that enabled the 1.1 million fall in impoverished children under Labour. His 40 minute no-notes address fused history, philosophy, economics and humour to formidable effect. 

Despite quipping at the start that he was “never very good at statistics” (“an occupational hazard for chancellors”), The Gordfather fired an arsenal of data at George Osborne’s arguments. The minimum wage, he warned, would need to rise to £12 an hour by 2020, rather than £9, to lift a family with two children out of poverty after the tax credit cuts, and to £14 for a family with three. Child poverty was forecast to rise to 3.9 million by 2020-21, 500,000 more than after the last Conservative government and 1.6 million more than when Labour left office. This, he explained, was due not least to a planned cumulative cut of 25 per cent to child benefit, with an increase of just £1.60 over a decade. 

But more than a blitz of statistics, this was an ethical hymn by Brown to the virtues of “progressive universalism”: “support for all families with children [universal child benefit] but “more support for those who need help most [means-tested tax credits]”. By “cutting work incentives and hitting children hardest”, tax credit cuts would, he declared “shame the name of Britain – betraying the very British values that encourage fair play, hard work, taking responsibility and mean compassion to children.” They were, he surmised: “anti-work, anti-family, anti-children, anti-women, anti-youth, anti-fairness”. 

A fortnight before the Autumn Statement, at which Osborne will announce his revised plans, he told his successor but one that “the impact of the cuts cannot be massaged or phased” – “even a modified version will destroy jobs, stunt children’s development   and impoverish hard working families.” Reciting a favoured bon mot, he later observed that there were “two kinds of chancellor: those who fail and those who get out in time”. Osborne, he said, could “make up his mind which he wants to be”.

But it was not only the Chancellor who Brown lectured. With Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson watching in the front row (praised as a “strong defender of children’s rights”), the former PM also delivered a warning to his own party. After losing two elections, it was natural, he said, for it “to want to return to first principles” and “to emphasise that power is not for its own sake”. But in an echo of the speech he delivered during the Labour leadership contest, he warned: “While you cannot deliver policies without principles, you cannot deliver principles without having power”. 

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Without mentioning his party or Jeremy Corbyn by name, Brown signalled his discontent with the opposition leader’s approach. “Making the desirable possible requires us to make the desirable popular, electable, credible,” he declared. He didn’t add that he believed Corbyn was failing in this regard – but he didn’t need to. 

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As he watches Osborne take an axe to one of his greatest legacies, Brown is ever more aware that losing elections has consequences. Should Corbyn fail to revive Labour’s fortunes, he will likely have much more to say.