Tony Blair was nicknamed “Bambi” by the Daily Mail when, as a 41-year-old MP, he was elected Labour leader in 1994. The party had been out of power for 15 years and his shadow cabinet had little experience of being in government or in unforgiving opposition.
Keir Starmer’s operation faces similar challenges as it tries to forge a strategy and policy agenda capable of defeating the Conservatives after a long, and exhausting, period out of office.
But it is less Blair that Labour’s top team turns to for guidance than the “enormous brain” of his chancellor and great rival, Gordon Brown. The former prime minister, who is less divisive among the party than his New Labour co-creator, has been tasked with exploring “new forms of economic devolution” by Starmer.
But Brown’s involvement in policy-making extends far beyond this. Work that began life as a constitutional commission, aimed at countering nationalist movements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has morphed into a much more ambitious policy revolution, encompassing levelling up, House of Lords reform and, in the wake of a series of Tory scandals, standards in public life.
“If you want to restore trust in politics, you can’t just do it by moving power much closer to people – you’ve got to do it by cleaning up the centre. That’s a phrase Gordon uses quite a lot,” says one shadow frontbencher in touch with the former PM.
Brown’s report is being compiled independently of the party machine, though his staffers are said to have a “direct line” into Starmer’s office, and it will be published by September. Sources say the leadership will then choose which of its proposals, if any, to adopt.
The review is expected to recommend allowing local councils to initiate legislation. Such a move could see them bypass the Treasury and bring proposals such as the “hotel bed tax” to national prominence. Councils in Birmingham and Manchester are thought to want powers to introduce a levy on hotel bedrooms so that when the city hosts international events, such as the Commonwealth Games, they can bolster their tax base and local public services as a result.
If the review is to recommend greater powers for cities, however, some predict “tension” between that agenda and calls for the party to boost towns, a cause particularly close to the heart of shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy.
The Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has already backed replacing the Lords with an elected “senate of the nations and regions”. Those close to Starmer believe he is minded to back reforms on standards in public life, not least because of Brown’s own blemish-free record since leaving government.
The former PM has also advised the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, over the Afghanistan crisis but is said to have a testy relationship with Ed Miliband, whom he backed for the Labour leadership in 2010; Brown was reportedly furious with Miliband for denouncing New Labour’s record (subsequently advising Starmer against appointing him to the shadow cabinet). Brown’s supporters reject the premise that he was the loser of the New Labour era, proclaiming that he “saved the pound, saved the global economy and saved the Union”.
It is not clear how radical his proposed economic reforms will be – sources say he will avoid tax and spending commitments – or whether shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, who has a reputation for caution, will accept them.
“It would be an irony, wouldn’t it, if Gordon Brown decided to break up the Treasury, but you never know,” one source said, when asked how radical the former PM would be.
Reeves and Brown are in regular contact and discuss the techniques Blair’s operation used to destroy the credibility of prime minister John Major and chancellor Ken Clarke in advance of the 1997 general election. Similarly, Brown is said to maintain a close relationship with Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and the man he appointed as health secretary in 2009.
The 71-year-old remains a workaholic, awake in his study at his home in Fife sometimes until the early hours. Many mornings, aides and shadow ministers will arrive at their desks to long and detailed emails, peppered with words in capital letters that most insist are “warm”, “helpful” and “kind” rather than simply “telling people what to do”.
“He is an inveterate emailer and caller,” said one party source. “He’s not a man for text and he’s certainly not a man for WhatsApp.”
“He just wants to know what he can do to be useful,” one frontbencher said. “And you know what he’s like – he’ll crack on and do it all. He will be ten miles down the road before you’ve realised he’s even left the building.”
Brown was among the most doubtful that Labour could win in 1997, following Neil Kinnock’s surprise defeat to John Major in 1992. Sources say that today he offers a similar, and healthy, dose of scepticism to frontbenchers preparing to fight the next election.
“You have a group of shadow ministers who, remember, have never been in power, constantly sort of asking themselves the question of where we are in terms of historical parallels,” said one party source. “And they have someone like Gordon, who is very animated, very energised about the task ahead, and willing to have these kinds of conversations, who can act as a sort of useful touchstone and help with gauging where we think we are in the project.”
Labour, as ever, faces a turbulent party conference season with activists on the left and right set to clash. Starmer is expected to face down trade union demands for him to back proportional representation – something likely to spark fresh anger – and stands accused by members of abandoning nationalisation pledges he made to win the Labour leadership in 2020. He faces a daunting struggle to hold his party together under one policy platform.
Brown, though nicknamed “Flash Gordon” in his younger years, is not a “show and tell” politician, like Blair, one frontbencher observed. But, as the Tories regroup after the Boris Johnson era, behind closed doors, Brown’s years of experience are proving very valuable.