Two for the price of one

22 Apr 05
IAN MACWHIRTER | It might be too early to call this election, but this has surely been the pivotal week in the campaign.

It might be too early to call this election, but this has surely been the pivotal week in the campaign.

Labour’s opinion poll lead, which had shrunk to only one percentage point in the BBC poll of polls only a fortnight ago, has stretched to a formidable seven points — enough to deliver a third Labour landslide.

Michael Howard now needs an electoral miracle to become prime minister. The Liberal Democrats are making some progress but remain a distant third.

Few are in any doubt that it was Gordon Brown who made the seismic shift in Labour support possible by taking on the Conservatives over the economy - an issue on which Labour now has a commanding lead. The chancellor rescued a campaign that had stalled over the PM’s trust deficit.

Indeed, it almost seems as if there are now two Labour leaders - joined at the hip. By promoting this dual leadership, Labour are, I suspect, half-consciously ensuring that Brown receives a kind of reflected mandate at this election, the better to smooth his transition to Number 10 when Tony Blair stands down.

Commentators often call Blair’s style ‘presidential’ but in reality it is more dynastic. Like monarchs of old, we have an heir and a spare.

But will the real Queen go along with it? As every student of Brit Con knows, prime ministers are supposed to be chosen by the monarch, with a little guidance from the electorate. Can Tony Blair really just say in two years or so: ‘Look, guys. I quit. It’s time for Gordon’?

However, this is a question for the future. Right now one can only marvel at Labour’s sheer chutzpah in offering pick’n’mix premiers. Lost trust in Tony? Don’t worry - Gordon’s here and he is the future. Worried about trades unions and the Left? This is still Tony’s party really.

Perhaps all the parties will now start offering two for the price of one.

Actually, the love affair between Brown and the Left is unlikely to last. Those who voted Blair to get Brown might be surprised at how little difference there is in practice between these two politicians - the co-founders of the New Labour project.

There has been an assumption that Brown is more in touch with the soul of the Labour movement and can be guaranteed to return to the social democratic virtues of old Labour or ‘real’ Labour. Not so.

He is more like a Victorian free-trade Liberal than a twentieth-century socialist. As prime minister, he would do nothing to challenge the power of capital, the profit motive or private accumulation of wealth. On the contrary, he is an evangelist for enterprise. He might have had serious doubts about introducing market mechanisms into the National Health Service, and opposed foundation hospitals borrowing on the capital markets, but not out of any prejudice against the private sector. He is a long-term enthusiast of the Private Finance Initiative.

Brown is much happier with the flexible and deregulated US economy than he is with the European social democratic model. This is one reason why he is so reluctant to join the single European currency. And he believes globalisation is a force for good.

He might have been responsible for some marginal redistribution of wealth, but it has hardly been a fundamental, irreversible shift of wealth and power to the many. The Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that inequality has increased markedly over the past eight years, and that there has been only a marginal reduction in absolute poverty.

Brown has a unique ability to speak to trade unionists and traditional Labour voters in a language they understand. But they don’t seem to listen to what he says. He has repeatedly warned that, faced with the challenge from new economies such as China, there can be no return to restrictive practices, protectionism or state controls. He believes, instead, in a kind of permanent revolution in education. Workers in Britain’s collapsing manufacturing base, such as Rover, have a stark choice: better yourselves, or accept the kind of low-wage, low-skill service sector jobs that are replacing manufacturing.

Nor is Brown a soft touch on social security. A workaholic himself, he thinks toil is a moral virtue. We’d better believe it. Brown’s Britain would be one in which the underclass in sprawling estates would find themselves pressed out of incapacity benefits and into honest toil.

Brown wrote the preface to the recent collection of essays on welfare called ‘Neo-Conservatism’ by the Right-wing commentator, Irwin Stelzer. The chancellor has already introduced a kind of ‘work-fare’ through his structure of tax credits.

Indeed, it is possible that Prime Minister Brown might be such a disappointment that there is a revolt against this parsimonious and puritanical Scot. Then we really would be in interesting times.

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