Brown rediscovers his middle class roots

Last weekend, the Fabian Society held their New Year conference, entitled ‘Causes to fight for’. I was fortunate to attend the conference on behalf of Liberal Democrat Voice, at the invitation of the Fabians. Over the next week, I will share with readers of LDV some of my thoughts and observations from the day. Today: the keynote speech from Gordon Brown.

Just over 30 months ago, Tony Blair made an over-emotional and stage-managed resignation speech. But as Brown’s long march to his inevitable anointment as party leader began, behind the scenes at Labour HQ a more rapid changeover took place, with the unceremonious removal of the ‘New Labour, New Britain’ logo from the party’s website and the brand from the party as a whole..

The reinstatement of the name ‘Labour’ and the traditional red rose symbol was said to emphasise the determination of senior Labour figures to regain hundreds of thousands of traditional supporters who have come to associate New Labour with a betrayal of the party’s values. And although Gordon Brown’s spokesman denied that he was behind the re-branding exercise, it was seen as a clear statement of the heir presumptive’s future intentions.

Fast forward two years from the coronation and the Prime Minister was hedging his bets. His speech to last autumn’s Labour conference had one reference to New Labour, with the phrase tempered by claiming that ‘the coming election will not be a contest for a fourth term Labour government, but for the first Labour government of a new global age’. But by the time we got to yesterday’s Fabian Society conference, it was clear that the conversion was complete, with 13 references to New Labour peppering the Prime Minister’s speech. There was a clear plea to the electorate to return to the electoral success of 1997, as his peroration began:

“In 1997, my predecessor and friend, Tony Blair, said that we had campaigned as New Labour, and would govern as New Labour. Let me say to you today, we have governed as New Labour and now we will campaign as New Labour. […} And so we can renew the New Labour coalition.”

It was as if Rafa Benitez thought he could re-enact the successes of the Shankly era simply by telling a press conference ‘There are two great teams in this city – Liverpool and Liverpool reserves’. But if the audience thought they’d heard more than they’d expected to hear about New Labour, that must have been nothing compared to the repetition of another word – middle. There were a total of 27 mentions of ‘middle’, with an additional 5 of ‘centre’. Middle income, middle class, centre party, centre ground: I could only assume that he’d been watching that advert for a low-fat spread, which claims ‘It’s great in the middle’.

“And ours is the only party that will protect and not squeeze that mainstream middle, ours the only party campaigning from the centre for the centre.”

This from someone who only last month was playing class war, with a man who thought up his policies ‘on the playing fields of Eton’. It’s not so long ago that the word ‘middle’ was alien to Brown, who once said ‘My wife is from Middle England, so I can relate to it’ in much the same way that Sarah Palin spoke of her knowledge of Russia stemming from the country being visible from parts of Alaska. Now he was pressing his own credentials, saying “I was born and brought up in Britain’s middle class”. Brown continued:

“I believe that a fair society is one where everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a chance to fulfil their dreams, whether that is owning a bigger house, taking a holiday abroad, buying a new car or starting a small business. So let me be explicit today; social mobility will be our theme for the coming election and the coming parliamentary term.”

Now never mind whether we want to build a society where people have to ‘play by the rules’ – although clearly Brown would love a society without dissent . But why does the Prime Minister believe that most people only value material possessions? What about personal freedoms, a safe neighbourhood, an environmentally sustainable society and quality health and education services, free at the point of delivery? And how would Brown’s aspirations for all fit with any fig leaf of green – a question raised by a representative during the Q&A session which followed the speech?

It all felt a little uncomfortable. Brown was making a desperate attempt to woo back a group of people that he had previously dumped. The effect was of an errant husband returning home after an affair with a younger model. I could see him wandering through the front door of middle Britain, drunkenly slurring “I really love you, I do”. So for Brown the struggle was finished. He had won the struggle over himself. He loved New Labour. But what of the rest of the audience? Unlike most similar set-piece speeches, there were very few mutterings of agreement and only one round of applause during the speech. From my vantage point on one side and near the back, fewer than half those in the hall joined in the standing ovation for Brown. It seemed clear when the attendees had signed up to a conference themed ‘Causes to fight for’ they hadn’t expected the middle classes to be that cause.

But in abandoning Labour’s core vote of the poor and disadvantaged, will Brown secure the votes of the centre that he so badly wants? Does he care about the core vote, or does he believe that they can safely be ignored. as they have nowhere else to go? Surely the lessons of the BNP over the past few years have taught that that would be a dangerous strategy? And has the Prime Minister not realised that for many people who in better times might have called themselves middle class, aspiration today is keeping a job and paying the rent or mortgage on the house that they have, whilst saving to put their car through another MOT.

As I waited at Euston for the train service to be reinstated after an earlier fatality on the line, I remembered that Leon Trotsky had criticised the Fabians for being an attempt at saving the middle class from being overthrown by the working class. I wondered if the conference had been told what Brown thought that they wanted to hear, or whether this was just the last throw of the dice by a desperate man.

You can read the full speech here

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One Comment

  • A very interesting report – thank you. It’s strange that Brown, who once wrote books which developed Labour Party ideology, now appears to have no ideas of his own. In part this must be because he is so busy micro-managing the country that he has no time to reflect on what he actually believes: a period in opposition might benefit him in this respect, except that he must know that he has no future in a defeated Labour Party and that the ideas which would eventually lead Labour forward from the wreckage of his government would come from Peter Mandelson and whoever he chooses as his allies; that is unless the Tories were to win a second term, in which case the party would probably disintegrate in its present form. Brown therefore has no choice but to enter the election promising to be all things to all men and women: belief may lead you astray, but lack of belief will cast you adrift.

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