Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour conference last week – almost certainly his last as leader and prime minister – was a very curious one, even by his standards. It was like an opposition manifesto against his own government. The PM reversed a whole series of Labour positions from 24 hour drinking to the voting system. He roused conference by announcing that there would be no compulsory identity cards. But, er, who was it that suggested them in the first place? It was, perhaps, the ultimate Macavity: for the last twelve years, it seems, Gordon wasn’t there.
Brown’s belated adoption of free personal care for the elderly (some of them at least) and his promise to restore the earnings link for pensioners, was good news for the grey vote. But it was Gordon Brown who opposed free personal care for nearly a decade – rejecting the recommendation of a Royal Commission – on the grounds that it was too expensive and handed taxpayer cash to middle class people who didn’t deserve it. Not any more it seems. Now perhaps the department for work and pensions will return those £20 million a year in attendance allowances vindictively withheld from Scotland in 2001 when Holyrood adopted free personal care.
Recalibrating state pension increases so that they rise in line with average wages is another humane move long overdue. The state pension has been allowed to wither to almost nothing, at the same time as occupational pensions have been axed. Millions face misery in old age. But Gordon Brown has been the major obstacle in restoring fair pensions for the last decade and a half, rejecting heartfelt appeals from campaigners like the late Barbara Castle Brown always argued that the nation couldn’t afford to restore the link, and that it would only benefit wealthier pensioners. Curious that we can suddenly afford this now, along with free personal care, when borrowing is running at a higher percentage of GDP than at any time since 1946.
Then there was the National Investment Corporation. The idea of mobilising finance for manufacturing is a sound one, especially now the banks have decided to hoard the profits they have made from low interest rates rather than lend it to business. But this idea has been around as long as Tony Benn – a National Investment Bank was a major part of the Alternative Economic Strategy in the 1980s. Similarly, the idea of using The Post Office network as an alternative to the commercial high street banks is an idea whose time has come following the banking crisis. There were whoops from conference when the PM announced that he wanted the Post Office to “bring banking services back to the heart of peoples’ communities”. But hang on : until a few months ago, this government’s policy was to privatise the Royal Mail and close thousands of branches.
I suppose the offer of a referendum on voting reform was not strictly a policy reversal – it’s just that Labour never honoured its promise to the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown before the 1997 general election. Tony Blair won by such a large majority that he was able to do without Ashdown and PR. Pity, because if there had introduced fair voting in general elections, we would probably never gone to war in Iraq. Tony Blair was able to resist the two of biggest backbench rebellions in modern political history only because of his inflated majority in the House of Commons, out of all proportion to the votes cast in the 2001 general election. (I realise that Brown is proposing the Alternative Vote, which isn’t strictly speaking proportional representation but I can’t see him having a referendum on electoral reform without PR being on he ballot paper). Abolishing hereditary peers is another piece of unfinished business from the past = why so long?.
But the hypocrisy-ometer went off the scale when it came to the economy. Many traditional Labour voters, and a lot of new ones too, must have been inspired by Gordon Brown’s denunciation of the age of irresponsibility and risk. I nearly choked on my Sesame Snap when I heard him promise to make the bankers pay back all he public money used to bail them out. Bonuses were well and truly bashed. Brown went on to condemn the “bankrupt ideology of right wing fundamentalism” – the idea that “markets always self correct and never self-destruct”. It was time, he said, “to put morals back into markets”. Hand me the Red Flag, comrade.
This ideological reawakening comes rather late in the day. As Chancellor of the Exchequer for nearly eleven years, Gordon Brown was responsible for the very “light touch regulation” that turned the City of London into a giant offshore casino. Brown devised a system of tax breaks, like non-domicile status and capital gains exemption, which attracted every financial spiv from the Vladivostok to the Cayman Islands. Why do you think all these Russian oligarchs have been coming to London? Speculators could do more or less what they wanted here, no questions asked. On the very eve of the crash in 2007, Brown praised the City’s “creativity and ingenuity” and their “most modern instruments of finance” – the very instruments that caused the crash. Gordon Brown also allowed the tax breaks for residential property ownership which created the greatest speculative house price bubble in history, and produced all those securitized mortgage bonds that turned toxic and had to handed to the bank of you and me.
So ideological schizophrenia, not depression, is the PM’s real psychological flaw. But I think there was a very sad message in Gordon Brown’s conference speech. Commentators said he was just playing to the Labour gallery, addressing the core vote, appeasing the Left. I think, on the contrary, that this was the real Gordon Brown, finally off the leash because his minders know that Labour is going down, and that it hardly matters what he says any more. Who are the Prime Minister’s minders? Well, senior civil servants, senior Labour figures, all those advisers from the City of London, like Baroness Vadera, who have been running the Cabinet Office for he last decade and have now left because they know the game is up.
This is Gordon as he might have been: radical,social democratic, innovative, internationalist, humane. (Well, except for the state homes for single mothers, but we’ll draw a veil over that). If only Gordon Brown had had the courage of his convictions history might have been very different. Gordon was there all the time – it’s just that he lost his voice.