The other evening in the run-up to the Labour Party conference Matt and I were trying to review, of the tops of our heads, what Gordon Brown had actually done to deserve the recent assault on his leadership. We weren’t talking about the recession threat or the perceived lack of charisma – we were trying to think what he had actually done wrong during his time in office as Prime Minister.
We came up with next to nothing of substance. Wavering over the general election, screwing gurkhas who served before ’97, screwing Iraqi interpreters, failing to ensure we have a healthy balance of industries and services in our economy, possibly screwing Martin Bright, the winter fuel business and avoiding the windfall taxing the energy companies, deciding not to tax non doms and – of course – getting rid of the basic rate of income tax.
The gurkhas and interpreters I am fairly certain have been shoddily treated – but as far as ousting a premier is concerned they aren’t a deal breaker. Martin Bright isn’t a deal breaker either, though what (it would appear) he has experienced makes Brown seem ruthless. As for the windfall tax, I’d want to know more – is the home insulation deal he has negotiated with the energy companies going to save home-owners substantial amounts as well as keeping them more comfortable and reducing emissions (which would be a triple dividend on a single measure)? If so, maybe it’s for the best. I know that David Porter, head of the Association of Electricity Producers, said that the costs of the package would be passed on to customers, but as long as they’re not the customers who are on modest incomes, there’s a case for that. It’s hard to say. I don’t remember anybody setting out for us how the much-vilified energy company profits are actually being spent, or how the anticipated package would affect the pockets of people on modest incomes.
Getting rid of the basic rate of income tax was Brown’s biggest disgrace. It is something he apologised for today in the breathlessly anticipated speech he made to the Labour Party Conference. There is no reason to accept his apology until the million least affluent people who are out of pocket are no longer out of pocket. This is the only kind of apology required – for the people who lost out and also because this is the thing that most embarrassed his party in full view of their voters. This is why, in all probability, his party has been punishing him now, without a convincing reason, even though it interferes with Labour’s ability to respond to the economic crisis, and even though there is nobody else they want to see as Prime Minister instead. This is idle, self-indulgent and just slightly sadistic.
And that brings me to the evening’s headache – apparently this afternoon’s speech has turned around Brown’s fortunes. I find this incomprehensibly capricious. How is it plausible that such a vague and insubstantial speech could assuage a bunch of people who were casting aspersion on his leadership only moments before? According to Michael White, “the key connection was emotional”. Polly Toynbee observes that “few speeches ever change anything”. What changed as a result of the speech? Nothing at all. The non doms remain untaxed. The energy companies are raking it in. Taxpayers bail out Metronet and Northern Rock. The pre’97 Gurkhas and Iraqi interpreters languish abroad.
Populist behaviour from Labour members and MPs – it’s not their own minds they want changed, it’s rather that they have come to consider Gordon Brown a liability to their own constituencies, or in the case of the MPs, their seats – their reputations and their opportunity to practice their own politics. Brown’s audience listened to his speech with the ears of their constituents and, gauging it satisfactory by that yardstick, tentatively approved it themselves. Why would we derive any confidence from this spectacle of penitence, humility and soul? I don’t want him to resign or enter a leadership contest – I want him to sort out our social policy. Everybody knows there’s nobody else but him. But I happen to think that speech, which was made over to party’s head and aimed at people not unlike me, was a load of old flannel.
Maybe it’s me and my growing disillusionment with theorists, blurry big picture thinkers, and visionaries – or at least the irresponsible ones with ideas and no sense of practicalities. Personally I get terribly turned off by visionary speeches in the absence of definitions of terms (Brown was plenty vague), getting from a-to-b with costs, anticipated risks, and contingencies. If a political speech or text doesn’t commit to, and attempt to persuade us about, a course of action in sufficient detail that it can be grappled with by its critics, then I don’t see the use in making it. Sure, we want to see our leaders incarnate, but I’d personally rather they sung a song, maybe danced a routine, or performed a comic sketch.
But nevertheless a visionary speech is what we expected him to make. And I wonder how we came to have such a culture where we expect and allow our leaders – they all do it – to make these kinds of speeches where they try to make us feel something but nobody learns anything.