Labour’s vote-losing ex prime minister offers his thoughts on electability
Since leaving office, Gordon Brown seems to have gotten it into his head that he is an inspiring, motivational speaker with political opinions that people are clamouring to hear.
Watch any of the former prime minister’s recent speeches, and regardless of the venue or topic he acts like he is delivering a TED talk, roaming the stage and sawing the air with his hands as though he were proposing an end to world poverty or recounting the time he founded a global software firm working out of his garage.
Unfortunately, in reality it is just the same, tedious old Gordon Brown whom the voters were so pleased to be rid of back in 2010. But this hasn’t stopped Labour Party chiefs from drafting him to give a speech on electability, the latest desperate attempt to pour water on Jeremy Corbyn’s inferno.
And yesterday, on a stage overlooking the River Thames and the Houses of Parliament, Gordon Brown duly delivered, pacing the platform like a caged animal as he imparted his wisdom to a grateful nation.
The Spectator nods its approval:
Gordon Brown has just given one of his saving-the-world-at-the-last-minute speeches. He was speaking just as the ballot papers for his party’s leadership election are being sent out, and in keeping with his other saving-the-world-at-the-last-minute speeches, particularly the one he delivered shortly before the Scottish referendum, it was a barnstormer.
His main theme was the importance of getting Labour into shape so that it can be in power in order to carry out its moral mission. Brown argued that ‘it is not an abandonment of principles to seek power and to use that power in government. It is the realisation of principles’. He described the party as being broken-hearted after losing May’s election, but adde that ‘there is one thing worse than having broken hearts: it is powerlessness’. He referenced the faction that believes its favourite for leader is the least electable of all, and then took his audience through a long history lesson.
In that history lesson, Brown argued that Keir Hardie’s work mean ‘Labour was able to put its priorities into practice by forming a government’ because Hardie saw it as a moral duty to get Labour into power. He spoke of the damage that he saw Labour’s long period of opposition during the 1980s doing to those who suffered under a Tory government, before defending the record and achievements of the 1997-2010 Labour government.
But what was actually most interesting about Gordon Brown’s speech was the contrasting style in which he talked about the Labour Party’s historical achievements and its current and future purpose.
So starkly different are the styles in these different sections that they are noticeable even on the printed page.
Here is Gordon Brown waxing lyrical about Labour’s past:
And here is Brown talking about why Labour matters today:
And again, in Brown’s coded attack on Jeremy Corbyn:
Notice the complete lack of paragraphs, the short, standalone sentences written with the news editor’s cropping software in mind while the poor listener’s brain is overlooked completely.
Ed Miliband’s speeches were all exactly the same, stylistically speaking: short, sharp statements of virtue, high on fluff and low on detail, throwing ideas up in the air but notably failing to develop any of them. On the page, it looks more like a word cloud or stream of consciousness rambling than a considered argument.
One cannot help but think that the vast difference in writing styles belies a deeper truth about the difference in Labour Party politics now and then. The discussion of Aneurin Bevan deserves its long phrases, substantial paragraphs and – shock, horror – a reference to Shakespeare, because the subject matter was suitably weighty, as was the injustice and inequality pressing down on the British people immediately after the war.
Today’s Labour Party, by contrast, is glib and superficial. They may use the same apocalyptic language when talking about poverty and inequality, but there is no escaping the fact that living standards are infinitely higher than they were in the 1930s and 40s, and a bare minimum acceptable quality of life for all is more or less assured through our creaking, inefficient welfare system.
With these battles already won, the fight has moved on to more cosmetic terrain, which is why Gordon Brown drones on about values and principles, barely using complete sentences at these points in his speech, and without ever defining the Labour Party’s new aspirations for Britain.
Gordon Brown’s ‘barnstorming‘ Royal Festival Hall speech was intended to deliver a history lesson, forcing the audience to conclude that a Jeremy Corbyn leadership would lead inevitably to powerlessness and the loss of influence. But in reality, all the speech did was reveal the extent to which the Labour Party has already become little more than a shadow of its former self, and that any burning sense of ideological mission has long since evaporated in the decades since 1945.
Jeremy Corbyn may not have the answers. But unlike Ed Miliband (and Gordon Brown, when he is not delivering a history lesson) Corbyn’s politics come packaged in complete sentences and paragraphs. There is a real, tangible ideology and worldview behind them, not just a few meaningless phrases about the importance of international co-operation on one issue or another.
And so the party establishment’s latest ruse to derail Jeremy Corbyn will fail, just as all of the previous attempts have failed. Not because Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are bad people, but because people can sense – and are turned off by – the gulf between supposed Labour principle and the technocratic way in which the party has governed and campaigned in recent years.
If Gordon Brown’s main objective in summoning the Westminster press to the South Bank to hear him rant about electability was to make his opposition to Jeremy Corbyn a matter of public record – a “Not In My Name” protest similar to Tony Blair’s intervention last week – then it may be judged a limited success. But only a partial one, since Brown failed to mention Corbyn by name.
But if the objective was to convince Jeremy Corbyn supporters to abandon their man in favour of another candidate based on their superior ideas and vision, then of course it was a complete failure. Gordon Brown spent a long time talking about Labour’s greatest accomplishments from the time when the party dared to do great things, but only in the context of a speech attacking the one leadership candidate still willing to think big.
The Labour Party needs to decide what it stands for in an age where the effects of globalisation are everywhere and the inevitability of the market is no longer in question. Astonishingly, Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate so far to have presented an answer.
Corbyn’s rivals – and the various party grandees desperately trying to prevent him from winning – urgently need to come up with solutions and visions of their own, substantive responses which must go significantly beyond sniping over electability.