Move on. Everyone makes a mistake. Nobody is perfect. There are three phrases you will not hear Peter Mandelson, Harriet Harman, or least of all Gordon Brown utter when talking about their rivals. “It’s the same old Conservative Party” became Brown’s mantra for the third of the three leader’s debates. Well maybe so, but perhaps the penitent sinner, as Brown describes himself, should be more forgiving of others, if he wants forgiveness for himself. David Cameron does not look like he is leading the same old Conservative Party and he was not a member of the government that did the things that Brown rails against. Political parties, like people, have the capacity to change, as was ably demonstrated by New Labour’s total rejection of what remained of its pseudo-socialism, replaced with a snappy line in business-friendly social democracy. I do not know if the Conservative Party has changed. We can only ever know by taking a risk and letting them into power. We would never have known if Labour had changed if they were not elected to government, but they were, and they had. Change need not always be a good thing. Lest we forget, the transformation to New Labour emboldened Brown to do things that Old Labour would never have contemplated – loosening the regulation of banks being a very good example. If you have a vestigial memory that Labour was the party that could be relied upon to be tough on reckless businesses, you might find it in conflict with more recent evidence that their government did quite the contrary.
Move on. But to where? Do many people seriously want Brown to remain as Prime minister now? The man has been subject to countless attempts to dethrone him by his own Labour Party, some of whom seem to utterly despise him. Brown’s continued survival relied on blackmail and bullying, and the startling absence of a decent alternative. If his own party are so unsure of his competence to lead, it is too much to expect the people at large to be more optimistic about keeping Brown in office. Indeed, that seems to explain the Labour Party’s main campaign message – ‘we are terrible but the alternatives are even worse’. If the polls are to be believed, Labour’s attempts to steal the popularity of the Lib Dems by positioning them as progressive but unelectable have backfired. Rather a lot of people would like to see the Lib Dems stop both the Tories and Labour from forming a majority government. Clegg’s successful shtick is that the big two are both as bad as each other. Again, if the polls are right, Clegg is making the shtick stick, and whenever Brown bashes Cameron about the Tory governments of ancient history, he inadvertently bolsters Clegg’s argument.
Move on. The problem Labour faces is that it has not moved on. Brown was so long the Primeminister-in-waiting, but continues to behave like a man both unprepared and ill-suited to the job. Brown did not move on, he just moved up. Nor has his top team moved on. Take a look at who gets rolled out when Brown gets himself into trouble. Peter Mandelson, the exemplar of Tony’s Cronies, is a man who left government not once, but twice in disgrace. Despite the antipathy between him and Brown, Mandelson had to be brought back – and given a peerage – in order to shore up a front bench thinned because of the endless in-fighting. The mind jumps up and down like a pogo stick trying to reconcile those facts with the idea that Labour wants to clean up government or is passionate about reforming the House of Lords. No.2 apologist in the Labour hierarchy of woe is Harriet Harman, a woman who spent most of the time in junior jobs or excluded from government because her colleagues thought she was… well, crap. It would seem that senior Labour MPs regard Harman as a moron, and voters have seen very little evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, time served has seen Harman elevated to the lofty heights of deputy-head-of-the-country, except that we know Mandelson is the real deputy and that Brown never lets go of the leash anyway. The ‘fresher’ faces in the front bench are Darling and Johnson, both exceptionally competent and balanced compared to their colleagues, but who could never be expected to set pulses racing and hearts aflutter. After them, you have the brothers Miliband and the husband and wife team of Cooper and Balls. The British public are rightly suspicious of the idea of a meritocracy which so conveniently keeps things in the family. But the most bizarre signal that Labour is stuck in a rut came from two improbably cheerleaders resurrected for the tedious ‘Brown won’ chorus line that immediately follows the Leaders Debate: Alastair Campbell and Oona King. Spin from the king of dodgy dossiers and the woman who got beat by George Galloway – is Labour really so short of talent that this is the best they can muster? Is the reason why Gordon Brown had to turn to the GOATS – the government of all the talents – because of the dearth of talent developed by own his fractious party?
Move on. That is what we were told by Mandelson and Harman after Brown’s gaffe on the streets of Rochdale. Brown said sorry, was sorry, felt sorry, so move on. But I would like to linger on this topic a while longer, just like they would like to linger in government a while longer. A 65-year-old grandmother and life-long Labour supporter asks Brown some impromptu questions and Brown snidely calls her a ‘bigot’ behind her back. Who does Gillian Duffy thinks she is? The trouble with Gillian Duffy is that she knows exactly who she is. The trouble with Gordon Brown is that he does not. Duffy is a working class woman from the North of England. She is exactly the kind of person who Brown sees himself working for, exactly the kind of voter that Brown depends on to win elections, and exactly the kind of human being that Brown is completely unable to relate to on a personal level. Brown thrives in the company of academics, politicos and sycophants. With everyone else he struggles. Coming from the North of England myself, I found the most telling feature of the exchange between Duffy and Brown was Brown’s naivety about how working class Northerners converse. These people should be the heart and soul of the Labour Party, but Brown has spent so little time in their company, that he simply cannot talk to them like ordinary people.
Move on. Working class Northerners are always moving on – to the next topic they want to talk about. So furiously do they move on, they have no time to let anyone else finish their sentence. The end result is that they talk over each other, time and again. This may seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with the practice, but it is possible to do it, hear what the other person is saying and keep the conversation going. You need to wait long enough into a sentence to get the gist of how it will conclude, then you leap in and start responding to your interlocutor. It is not a sign of rudeness so much as a sign of engagement – why not talk and listen at the same time, and get double the conversation as a result? But Brown, worried about how he would sound on his lapel microphone, had no idea of how to engage with a Gillian Duffy unwilling to wait for his answers. Frustrated at his own interpersonal weaknesses, unable to relate to the people that he supposedly cares for, Brown ended up talking to himself, whilst Duffy talked to herself. Duffy talked about how she cared for disabled children, and then went on to the topics that worry her: tax on her pension, the debt crisis, benefits for people who do not deserve them, the scale of immigration from Eastern Europe, and tuition fees for students. In his parallel conversation, Brown made some insincere comments about the importance of working with children, gave ineffective advice about Duffy’s tax, listed his plans for how he will reduce debt, said immigration balances out and that tuition fees were needed.
Move on. Brown did, and you could sense he was glad to. He was glad to get away from a woman who has her concerns and, quite reasonably, took her short chance to convey them to the Prime minister. Brown leaped to the safety of his limo, surrounded by his apparatchiks, but in his hurry forgot about the microphone still attached to his lapel. We should be grateful he did forget, because we learned, or rather confirmed, something about Gordon Brown. Behind all the bluster about Brown’s caring nature, the incident reinforced what a two-faced wretch Gordon Brown really is.
“Should never have put me with that woman”
Only a few days earlier, a change was announced in Labour’s campaign tactics. The decision was that Brown would spend more time with real people, and not just surrounded by grinning Labour party goons. I cannot have been the only person to laugh at this change of tack – it seemed so likely to backfire. That the decision was made shows that Brown is badly out of touch. It did backfire spectacularly, because Brown is out of touch. One wonders if Brown has ever been in touch. What we saw and heard in Rochdale was what happens when Brown spends time with real people. Brown’s reaction was genuine, a description that you would not normally give of his public performances. Brown was unhappy to be put alongside someone who made him look bad. You know the type that makes Brown look bad: lifelong working class Labour party voters who respectfully ask questions about the challenges the country faces. Do not put Brown alongside them, because they make Brown look bad. A leader might embrace tough questions as an opportunity to shine. Not Brown, because his answers are so poor. A leader might embrace reaching out to the people whose support he needs to stay in power. Not Brown, because those voters do not understand just how brilliant Brown is, and cannot be educated or told why. They just have to have faith that Brown is best, even if he cannot talk to them in a language they understand. And if they express doubts and fears, then they should not be listened to, because their doubts and fears are plainly wrong.
“She’s just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour, I mean, it’s just ridiculous”
Here is one definition of the word ‘bigot’:
A person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.
It seems clear to me who the real bigot is. It is not the ordinary woman just asking some questions. The bigot is the self-absorbed pretend leader, who secured his position as a hand-me-down by way of an internal coup. The bigot is the leader who can only maintain his leadership by intimidating his own party, and by generating fear and loathing of the alternatives offered to ordinary voters. The bigot is the man unable to explain himself but no less convinced of his utter rightness on every point. The bigot is the person who pretends to serve and care for people, to appreciate their efforts and concerns, and then disparages those same people when he thinks himself out of earshot. And the bigot is someone who simply cannot hear what people are telling him, who only hears a rhetoric twisted by his askew view of the world around them. Look at the excuses given by Brown for the contempt he showed for this one ordinary working class Labour voter:
“It was a question about immigration that really I think was annoying”
“I misunderstood what she said”
“I thought she was talking about expelling all university students for this country who were foreigners.”
If you listen again to the encounter, it is hard to correlate these excuses with what actually took place. The only possible way to reconcile Brown’s actions with Brown’s explanations is to assume he had a rush of blood to the head, got angry (but succeeded in hiding his temper) and simply stopped listening to what Gillian Duffy was saying. Take a look again and try to imagine yourself both actually listening to Gillian Duffy and then misinterpreting what she said in the way Brown says he did.
I can only imagine myself acting like Brown if I assume I hear just one word in three spoken by Gillian Duffy – and that I then fill the blanks by drawing on a volatile reserve of anger, bile and disappointment that must lie in the pit of Brown’s stomach. That bitter brew clogged Brown’s ears and then coated the back of his throat, causing him to spit out his disgust with an ordinary working class Labour voter, who simply did not behave the way Brown wants and expects her to behave. Brown is a bigot, and he expects the working class to behave like some deferential pastiche from a 1920’s newsreel. In the repulsive caricature of working class people that plays in Brown’s mind, they all know their place and express their gratitude for whatever the Labour Party condescends to give them, whilst never questioning what they take away. This campaign has underlined the underbelly of New Labour – that it must take working class voters for granted whilst it chases after the middle class. The political calculation is that the working classes have nowhere else to turn, so can be relied upon at the ballot box. But calculation does not breed affection. This election campaign has ably illustrated the lack of affection Brown inspires in a people for whom he shows no affection in turn.
Gordon Brown does not have a charming bone in his body. More importantly, he is weak at communication, as was ably demonstrated by his moribund performances in the Leaders Debates. The general public concluded that he finished a resounding third best amongst the three leaders, no matter how many times Mandelson, Campbell and King insisted otherwise. One presumes the only people who thought he won a debate where the people as equally bigoted as Brown – those who had decided Brown was the winner even before he spoke his first word. Communication is not incidental to the job of a leader. Communication is a core skill of an effective leader. Brown may be an effective decision-maker, but all those years in Blair’s shadow protected him from a thorough examination of his frailties as a communicator. In this last few weeks we have seen how even Brown’s insincere body language undoes him as a leader. This is most obviously seen in that pained smile he uses to hide his fear on those occasions when he is actually supposed to be projecting remorse or gravitas. The debates and Duffy have given the British public even more evidence of Brown’s failings, when no more evidence was really needed. Brown is a very excellent technocrat, able to manage information and reach conclusions, but he lacks the common touch, does not inspire confidence, and he cannot explain himself. He needs to return to a backroom job, because the harsh light of politics shines too deeply into the dark shadows of his soul.
Move on. Everyone makes a mistake. Nobody is perfect. Brown’s mistake was to become a politician in the first place. He might have made a top-notch civil servant or administrator. Rather ironically, he would have excelled in banking. But all Brown’s great ability is put to poor use when compensating for his obvious flaws as a politician.
Gordon Brown, it is time to move on.