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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Proclamations of the Red Queen

7th April 2010

Review: Colin Hughes (ed) What Went Wrong, Gordon Brown?

Posted by: Craig Young

Colin Hughes (ed) What Went Wrong, Gordon Brown? London: Guardian Books: 2010.

And did it…?

The British and New Zealand Labour administrations of the last decades were siblings. However, apart from Tony Blair’s LGBT-inclusive social liberalism and paradoxical corresponding foreign policy conservatism when it came to the Iraqi War, we know little about one major influence in the Clark administration, as well as in the case of the contemporary Goff-led Labour Opposition.

Of course, there are some clear differences. Blair and Clark tacked to the centre-right on criminal justice policy, but there were some clear differences on foreign policy. Clark might have committed New Zealand Army SAS, medical and humanitarian forces to Afghanistan, but prudently refused to become entangled in the Iraqi War quagmire that ended the political career of Tony Blair. When nemesis came, it was in the form of the local impact of the global recession in New Zealand. And so Blair stepped aside, and Clark lost the fifth general election that she had contested, handing over to Phil Goff as her designated heir apparent.

As with Blair and Brown, there is a mixture of veteran old hands and promising newcomers within Goff’s Shadow Cabinet and New Zealand Labour is already registering some palpable hits against the more lacklustre members of the Key regime in several of its weaker portfolio areas. Inevitably, as incumbency fatigue seits in, the Labour/Green voter share will rise steadily in our own context. Fortunately, MMP means that the centre-left benefits from Green resilience and strength- as might be the case with Britain’s Liberal Democrat third party after May 6, 2010. The latter may offer a preview of what life might be like under any future New Zealand Labour/Green coalition, given the LibDem emphasis on environmental policy and social liberalism.

So, what are the other parallels? Like Goff , Clark and New Zealand Labour, Brown inherited a unified, disciplinary and strategically focused party core. Until the advent of David Cameron, that was not the case with his Tory adversaries. Unlike John Key, though, David Cameron’s Opposition leadership is now under active threat from fratricidal elements within his own party. Based on scrutiny of the Brown administration, though, what can Goff and New Zealand Labour learn from Gordon Brown’s experience?

Brown initially positioned himself well, through importing relevant external policy expertise to shore up areas of perceived weakness and adeptly using high-profile, articulate ex-Tory advisors, much as Clark was not averse to using amenable ex-members of the National caucus. If Brown’s early tenure is any indication, Goff’s Labour caucus and their Green allies should keep hammering away at areas of centre-right policy weakness, like education concerns,, health provision, frontline social service access slashing, accessible state housing and other shibboleths of the centre-right. Thus far, that may be their best strategy. Unexpectedly, criminal justice policy has become one of the key (…) failures of the current regime. Goff did well in opposition last time on law and order issues, it must be remembered.

Fortunately, New Zealand Labour leadership transitions are stable and orderly processes. Clark consolidated her authority in the mid-nineties. For National and the British Conservatives alike, however, internal rancour tends to build until enough caucus members are alienated and disgruntled enough to launch coups against the declining leadership. New Zealand Labour learnt its lesson after the schisms of the late eighties led to the emergence of the Alliance and the turmoil of those “Mad Mike” personality cult excesses of the early nineties. For that matter, personality and policy schisms have had highly destructive implications for satellite parties, whether the demise of the Alliance on the left, New Zealand First on the anti-market right (and ACT?) all demonstrate.

In the case of the Brown UK Labour caucus, some became apprehensive about policy direction in 2008/9, despite the precedent of the fratricidal Major Tory administration of the nineties and consequent Tory disunity and fragmentation over the course of the next decade. Surprisingly, government economic policy has not become an incumbency solvent as it has seems to have done in the case of the German Merkel and French Sarkozy administrations, given Brown’s Chancellorship beforehand and relevant policy expertise. If unemployment resumes its rise after a mere interlude and there is a backlash against the current abhorrent Key regime attacks on vulnerable Invalids Beneficiaries, then it may similarly find itself vulnerable.

However, Brown fought back against caucus disloyalty and his past financial management expertise came in good stead. He has shown himself to have a strong grasp of public anxieties, such as the issue of excessive MP expenditure on personal items. Brown responded quickly when it came to tax relief for the low paid, campaigned against high interest rates and undertook a prudent interventionist policy that has enabled the United Kingdom to escape the worst of the turmoil.

And then, the Tories went insane again. Unbelievably, the ConservativeHome website disclosed that there would be an influx of unreconstructed hardcore raving right anti-abortion, antigay, antigreen, antieuropean MPs in the event of a decisive Tory victory and loose cannons began to blunt the appeal of what had seemed to be an unchallengable poll lead. Within Labour, leadership tensions diminished after a leadership challenge and his one-time challengers decided that caucus unity and discipline and policy innovation might still lead to a closer-fought election result. Lord Ashcroft’s donation blunders didn’t help matters for the Tories, either.

As the time for the next British general election nears then, the title of this slender volume appears to be misleading. Brown has shown some capability for resilience, discipline and perhaps ultimate survival, as well as pragmatic policy relevance. By contrast, Cameron is now visibly faltering as anxieties grow about the influence of the aforementioned ‘raving right’ Tories. Certainly, outside Parliament, they appear to be on a fratricidal warpath

Brown may well survive this election. Current UK opinion polls suggest that the most probable outcome will be a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition. Of course, there is another side to this story, which is the electoral and organisational quagmire of the Tories during the nineties and this decade. As soon as  I can access it, I’ll review Tim Bales’ recent volume on that party and recent period of British political history.

Tags: Politics

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