Gordon Brown's battle

This article was published in the Yorkshire Post
8 February 2010

The battle is not all over yet, Gordon... if you can use your strengths

The nation is fed up with its leader. The same party has been in power for well over a decade. Other elections and opinion polls show the voters want change.

Compared to the peerless communication abilities of his predecessor, the new head of government can stumble over words and is less telegenic.
Taxes are high and a resurgent Right-wing group of commentators say it is time for less government and more freedom for business. Voters are fed up with commitments overseas. Many think their nation is losing control of its identity as it signs up to supra-national bodies that require sharing sovereignty.

Britain in 2010? No, America in 1948 when everyone assumed that the long years of Democratic rule would end as the national mood, at a time of the Berlin airlift, seemed to be turned off the pedestrian, earnest Harry Truman after the actor's charm of the patrician Franklin D Roosevelt.

So certain were the opinion polls that Truman would be defeated they announced that his Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey, had won even before all the real polls closed.

The re-elected President Truman held up a famous Chicago Sun Tribune front page announcing his defeat with the biggest grin ever seen on a US president's face.

Will Gordon Brown break out the rarely seen smile as the votes come in on General Election night in three months' time?

Can he be Labour's Harry Truman and bring home a fourth Labour election victory? The tantalising possibility beckons but only if Brown rises to the challenge in three months' time of persuading the nation that his seriousness is worth a further spell in Downing Street.

The divide is there. Not since the gap between Disraeli and Gladstone has there been such a chasm between two men who seek to lead Britain into the second decade of the new century.

David Cameron is the opposite of everything Gordon Brown is. Rich, easy of manner, instantly friendly with all who meet him, clever without having written a book or policy paper in his life, a young marriage into a fellow scion of the moneyed landed class with delightful children and a home-life that shows an admirable and enviable work-life balance.

Cameron, above all, is English. Brown is pure Scots. The Calvinistic work ethic of the son of the Scottish Manse, who fears he is losing his sight. Despite his intellectual brilliance and a list of books and papers to his name, he waits until his 50s to become a parent.

Cameron has had all of life's glittering prizes offered to him without much effort. With Brown, there is a sense of toil and tears as he spent a decade watching Tony Blair run the show. But it was Brown who provided the economic and social policies that have led to the massive improvements in the health service, schools being rebuilt and millions of people of all ages and classes enjoying new cars, a nicer life style, rising house prices and one, two or more holidays a year.

Brown has just a few weeks to find the popular language that conveys the economic common sense that a major cut in public expenditure now would shut the taps of funds for scores of thousands of Yorkshire and British businesses. There are no state industries to privatise and no North Sea oil to provide a bonanza as in the 1980s. From building, to security, to training, to catering, to printing, it is public sector demand that keeps firms alive.

Brown needs to explain that the deficit is twice as big in America but has spurred over five per cent growth there in the last quarter. Unemployment is higher in Germany, and debt more of a problem in most EU countries. Britain does face challenges but they are manageable and the efforts to portray Britain as in the same parlous state as 1979 just do not make sense.

Brown should make clear that his rejection of calls by Conservative shadow ministers for instant cuts to please the bonus boys in the City is based on a hard-headed analysis of sustainable demand-focused economics.

But he must be brave and make clear to the public sector that the padding and endless flow of new jobs is over. Labour should set out a timetable not just for deficit reduction over the next government but a pledge to lower taxation, save on the greedy end of the labour market.

There should be a super-tax for two years on all public employees earning more than £100,000 a year, starting with the outrageous pay of BBC executives. Labour should aim to get more low-and middle-paid workers, including those who struggle to start a business, either out of tax altogether or by reducing their tax burden.

Cameron is tilting the tax breaks either to his fellow millionaires in the Shadow Cabinet or to the John Terrys of the world who can ditch a wife and marry a new one with a Cameron tax bonus for infidelity.

Brown was Britain's best post-war CFO. He has had difficulties since he took over as CEO. He should play to his strengths and make clear the state will be smaller and better focused under a new period of office for Labour.

But Britain cannot turn its back on the world. This week, the former Foreign and Defence Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, sensibly called for a new entente with France so that Britain and France could forge new defence relationships to allow power projection and armed services at world-class level. Rifkind is right. But he knows that the Tory Foreign and Defence spokespersons, William Hague and Liam Fox, are obsessively hostile to Europe, as are most Conservative candidates and existing MPs.

Brown has to make clear that, like Harry Truman, he will not allow Britain to fall under the sway of a new isolationism. Many Republicans in 1948 wanted America to limit its "foreign entanglements", to use George Washington's phrase. Conservatives in 2010 are also keen to see Britain reduce its engagement with Europe. A survey of Conservative candidates showed them refusing to support the fight against global warming – the cause which requires more not less commitment to supranational policy decisions based on sharing sovereignty.

As Harry Truman campaigned to save America from Right-wing Republicans in 1948, his supporters cheered him on by saying, "Give 'em hell, Harry". Brown's fans might shout "Go get 'em, Gordon". Such populism sits ill with the stern, unyielding, puritanical style of the Prime Minister. But it may yet win him his first big election.