13 October 2021

Starmer should learn from what Brown got wrong as well as what Blair got right

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In the late 2000s, Tony Blair’s name was being touted as a potential president of the European Council. It never happened but I made a short film for Andrew Neil’s late-night BBC politics programme arguing that it would be a good thing if it did, and that the European cause and Britain’s own interests would benefit from such a heavyweight at the helm.

I didn’t expect assent from the programme’s resident pundits, Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott, and emphatically didn’t get it. So my pleasure in our live discussion was unconstrained when Ms Abbott dismissed me as one of Tony Blair’s acolytes – for I was able to truthfully counter that, perhaps oddly for a political commentator, I’ve never actually met Mr Blair. My admiration for him was, and remains, a genuine and disinterested opinion based on nothing but his political record.

Even writers once close to him, such as John Rentoul of the Independent and my former Times colleague Philip Collins, have since faulted Mr Blair on immigration and Europe, but I completely agree with Labour’s most successful ever leader on these contentious issues. And therein lies the paradox: my side of politics, which supports openness and internationalism, has fared disastrously in recent years, yet its most prominent advocate is one of just three Labour leaders to have won a parliamentary majority at the ballot box, and the only one to have been born within the last 100 years.

How he managed it, with successive landslide victories and then a big win even amid the Iraq war, is of utmost importance to the Labour cause, yet his name is barely uttered by the party’s current leader. The BBC’s documentary series Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution, which can be seen in full on iPlayer, is hence timely as well as fascinating. It sharply illuminates the initially cooperative yet ultimately dysfunctional relationship between its two principal figures. Mr Blair says of Gordon Brown: ‘I have a deep affection and respect for him that no amount of squabbling could ever erase.’ But that’s not how it appeared at the time. Here is my reading of what the series tells us, and what lesson ultimately should be inferred by the protagonists’ successor Sir Keir Starmer.

First, the longstanding notion that Mr Brown was somehow done down by his colleague and rival is a myth. It was open to Mr Brown to run for the leadership after the death of John Smith in 1994. If he had done, he’d have lost and Mr Blair would have still won. More to the point, Mr Brown would have deserved to lose, because he did not properly grasp how radically Labour needed to change.

Smith was a talented, articulate, moderate politician of pro-European views (he was one of the 69 Labour MPs to defy the whip and vote for entry to the European Economic Community). But I’m still not convinced he would have won, had he lived, even against a wounded and divided Conservative government, because he was clearly tribally Labour. That’s not a bad thing: I sympathised with his redistributive plans, as shadow chancellor, that are widely blamed for harming Labour’s appeal in the 1992 election. But he did not evince an understanding of the wish for self-betterment that had driven millions of working-class voters to support Margaret Thatcher, or the widespread suspicion of trade union militancy that caused such damage to the British economy in the 1970s. Mr Brown was of the same school, whereas Mr Blair visibly, rather than apologetically, understood that redistributive policies require a market economy to generate the wealth.

Second, Mr Brown’s record in government is recalled more favourably by pundits than it ought to be because he got its biggest issue right. The collapse of the banking system required radical remedial measures: a huge expansion of liquidity, a bailout package that included public stakes in the banks, and a willingness to let the budget deficit expand dramatically in order to support aggregate demand.

All of these things were done by the Brown government. But, as chancellor, Mr Brown also did things that contributed to the problems later on. As well as rightly taking monetary policy out of the hands of politicians, he took banking supervision out of the hands of the Bank of England. It was a disastrous error, contributing to a lax standard of regulation and the ensuing disaster of Northern Rock.

And though he is widely lauded for keeping Britain out of the euro, I’m not sure his supporters should stress this. If you welcome (as the Conservatives once did) the efficiency gains of the European single market, then a single currency helps realise them further. I still believe that if Britain had gone into the euro at the right exchange rate, it would have made for better economic policy and, of course, have rendered impossible the pure folly of Brexit.

Moreover, as is clear from the documentary, Mr Brown was temperamentally unsuited to the top job. All of us journalists knew of his rages and inability to work constructively beyond a caucus of supporters. And so it proved in office.

Third, Mr Blair managed to do what any Labour leader must do: he occupied the centre ground. There was nowhere for the Tories to go except towards an ideological fringe. When Labour was enacting important reforms such as the minimum wage, the Conservatives were still opposing it on the empirically unsubstantiated grounds that it would raise unemployment. At the 2001 election, William Hague, a decent and thoughtful man mounted a shrill and absurd campaign that failed comprehensively. And his party was revealed to have a real problem of racism, epitomised in one MP who warned of Britons becoming a ‘mongrel race’.

Fourth, and last, there is a lesson here for the current leadership. Labour does not have to lose but it will do if it talks to itself. It’s possible for a liberal lawyer in Islington – which is after all, what Mr Blair was – to appeal across nations, regions and social classes, but it requires making choices and telling truths. Sir Keir rose to the leadership largely by not offending any interest group within the party. That won’t work, when talking to the country.

Labour plumbed moral depths under his predecessor, even to the extent of being institutionally antisemitic. It now needs a leader who will make the same liberal choices as Tony Blair while driving out – not just marginalising, but removing – people who don’t subscribe to democratic politics at all. It is vanishingly unlikely that Labour will be able to craft a message that appeals simultaneously to socially conservative, pro-Brexit voters and younger, more liberal and metropolitan ones, so don’t try. Instead, tell the truth. Britain on its current course is retreating from the world and indulging nationalist delusions. A liberal, non-socialist, internationalist appeal is where the party’s pitch should be.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer at The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.