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27 September 2007

Middle England’s new hero

Gordon Brown's conference speech made the Labour tribe happy. Yet its main message was not for them,

By Martin Bright

Walking along Bournemouth seafront after a long day at the Labour party conference, I bumped into one of the prospective candidates for the next election scuttling off to yet another fringe meeting on “the fourth option for council housing” or “making mutualism mainstream”. She told me she had arrived at Bournemouth already bruised by battles with a particularly unpleasant bully of a sitting Tory MP. She felt increasingly nervous about the idea of a snap election and was clearly fatigued by several days of hard conferencing. But she had the fixed smile everyone seemed to be wearing this year. “You know what? There’s a real buzz,” she said. “It’s just so nice to feel we’re all pulling in the same direction at last.”

There is no doubt this was by far the jolliest Labour conference most of the delegates had ever experienced. Speaking at a reception on Tuesday night, Kitty Ussher, one of Labour’s rising stars, suggested that there was something in the Bournemouth air. “Everybody is smiling, smiling, smiling,” she said. Although the beatific grins grew a little tiresome after a while, there was no doubting the genuine enthusiasm for the new era in the party (or, more precisely, the heartfelt sense of relief that the party was no longer dominated by the ups and downs of the Blair-Brown relationship).

The media were generally unimpressed by Brown’s speech on Monday, and even party loyalists realised it was not a tour de force. The first five minutes were well judged as Brown celebrated just how well Britain (and, by extension, its Prime Minister) had dealt with the terrorist attacks, flooding and foot-and-mouth. But the speech as a whole showed signs of being a rushed job, overlong and pasted together. I am told there were grave concerns by the weekend that Brown was still working on those opening paragraphs, and the rest certainly did not live up to the early promise.

Yet few of the delegates cared. Year in and year out, they would come away from Tony Blair’s conference speech feeling that he loved them after all, only to be kicked in the teeth again as soon as they returned to their constituencies. This was something quite different. One newspaper columnist’s headline read: “Clever, detailed and confident, but where was the sparkle?” But perhaps cleverness, detail and confidence are exactly what is required after more than a decade of oversold, but often meaningless, sparkle.

Much has been made of the brazen appeal to the Conservative heartlands contained in the speech, at the very moment that the oratory of David Cameron has lost its initial sheen. Although the Labour tribe was happy, this was not a message for them. This may yet turn out to be the Prime Minister’s biggest problem. By concentrating on detailed plans for micromanaging the fears of Middle England (disease-ridden hospitals, gun-wielding asylum-seekers, binge-drinking teens) he has omitted to address the bigger picture. It would be absurd to expect a Labour leader to draw attention to some of the failings of the government, but it would have been helpful to get a sense of how Brown expects to deal, for instance, with rising prison numbers, the growing gulf between the richest and the poorest in society and the increasing threat of the British National Party over the issue of migrant labour.

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There is a temptation to think that subsequent speeches by Alan Johnson on health, David Miliband on foreign policy and Peter Hain on welfare reform were cynical attempts to reassure the activists on the floor. It is certainly true that Johnson talked of the scandalous difference in life expectancy between men in Manchester and those who live in Kensington and Chelsea. Miliband was big enough to admit that mistakes had been made in Iraq and Hain tried to calm tempers over the closure of Remploy factories for disabled workers. I am told that strict instructions went out from Downing Street to cabinet members making speeches not to succumb to the temptation to tickle the tummies of the activists. They couldn’t entirely resist, but the tickling was kept to a minimum.

Recalibrated vision

Labour Conference 2007 will not be remembered as the moment Gordon Brown’s government began to develop his individual political philosophy, as distinct from the new Labour “Third Way” or Blair’s market fundamentalism. One cabinet minister told me he believed there needed to be more time for the recalibrated Brown vision to establish itself. “We must be ready to persuade the British people that we think like them and we talk like them,” he said.

This is one of the reasons why a snap election is such a bad idea. There is a principled argument for using it to establish a legitimate mandate for the Brown premiership and a less principled one that says the party should run to the polls while the going is good. Without a coherent vision, however, the timing is all wrong. There are even some within the party who believe that next May would be too early. One select committee chair outlined a compelling scenario that Brown should wait until after the EU treaty legislation has gone through parliament. Then David Cameron could only argue retrospectively that there should have been a referendum. The counter-argument, of course, is that the anti-European noise from the Murdoch press will soon be unbearable and that Brown should use the election as a de facto referendum on the issue.

In the end it may become too much for Brown – but it is still not certain that the constituency parties are ready for the fight. The Labour Party is not in good financial shape and some prospective candidates have already raised concerns about the money pouring into marginal seats from the Tory party’s deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft. But that is the least of their problems. There are still many constituencies that have yet to select a candidate, and staff would have to be found for a Labour campaign headquarters in London. Labour’s only advantage is that the Tory constituency parties, though better funded, are even less prepared for an election.

Yet, beyond all the technicalities, there is a real problem with the message. New cabinet ministers are still struggling to decide what can be ditched from the Blair era without being accused of U-turns in every area. I understand the so-called Respect agenda is proving especially problematic. Although it is now accepted that Asbos are in effect criminalising large numbers of young people (which was never the intention), it is difficult to see how the government could turn its back on such a high-profile policy without looking soft on crime.

In other areas, Brown knows he has a huge opportunity to turn what looked like right-wing policies under Blair into progressive policies under the new government. Key to this is persuading the party (and the British people) that foundation hospitals and school trusts do not amount to the privatisation of public services. The Children and Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, was working hard at the conference fringes to persuade delegates that school trusts were in line with co-operative and mutual principles, and not simply an opportunity for big corporations and fundamentalist Christian churches to take over education. This process will take a great deal of time and effort, however, and many in the party are deeply suspicious.

Yet, for candidates, like the one I met on the Bournemouth seafront, it is essential that Brown gets this part of the message right before he goes to the country. Because they still think they are Labour Party candidates and they need to know what a Labour Party under Brown really means – or the smiles will soon be wiped off their faces.

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