What do you do with a problem like Gordon?

by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2008

One year on, and Gordon Brown and the Labour party are in a mess. The PM’s popularity – and self-confidence – plummeted after he bottled out of calling a general election last October, since when Labour’s ratings have drifted downwards: they have been above 29% in only one poll out of 15 conducted in the last two months.

Some will say this is inevitable, that what is happening to Labour after Tony Blair is not so different to what happened to the Tories after Margaret Thatcher’s demise: as political giants depart the stage their shadows continue to dominate the stage. Both Blair and Thatcher shook up their parties, turned them inside out, so small wonder their successors should struggle to make sense of what they’ve been bequeathed. Yet Major won an election and his premiership endured for seven years. It’s hard to see Gordon pulling off the same trick.

Not even matching up to the standards of John Major: can there be a more cruel political epitaph?

So if Labour’s current woes are not inevitable, the question should be asked: what could Gordon have done differently? To which there is one over-riding, blunt answer: have a clue what he wanted to achieve as Prime Minister.

It’s hard to recall now, but one of the reasons Gordon’s entry to Number 10 was greeted with such enthusiasm was that most political observers assumed he had a radical vision for what he wanted to achieve when he was in power. We reckoned he’d have a packed legislative programme which reversed elements of Blair’s more controversial measures (eg, scrap ID cards, withdraw from Iraq) and introduced radical initiatives which Blair had flunked (eg, elected House of Lords, even proportional representation).

Instead of which, Gordon wore a suit when meeting President Bush, persuaded Tory Quentin Davies to defect, and did a U-turn on super-casinos. Brave New World, it wasn’t. Those of us who thought Gordon was fizzing with new ideas are now left wondering: why exactly did he want to be Prime Minister so much?

There are still some who put it about that Gordon’s failures are to do with ‘image’, that it’s because he looks uncomfortable perching on a GMTV sofa that the public hasn’t warmed to him. Nonsense: it’s because he’s so desperately trying to appear comfortable that we view him with suspicion. Leaders shouldn’t be so blatantly eager to please; they should be comfortable in their own skins, confident in themselves.

It is not that the public is pre-programmed to warm to smooth politicos like Blair and Cameron; what we want from our politicians is authenticity, for them to be themselves, and to be seen clearly to be doing what they believe in (regardless of whether we agree). Most of us are scratching our heads wondering what it is that Gordon Brown actually does believe.

It’s not that we weren’t warned. After all, he voted for the Iraq war – but was careful to leave the impression with those credulous enough to want to be fooled that it’s not something he would have done as Prime Minister. Do any of us really imagine that he really regarded 42 days as a crucial piece of legislation, fundamental to the UK’s security? Of course not. It was simply some neat tactics to show himself as strong on terror, and to put the Tories in a bit of a fix. Gordon portrayed it as a symbol of all his government believes in: he was probably right.

No vision, no beliefs, no policies. One year on, most of us are a bit wiser. But not Gordon.