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January 10, 2008

Gordon Brown: Down and Out? So It Seems - argues William D. Rubinstein

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

What explains Gordon Brown's collapse in popularity? William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - offers his thoughts. The views expressed here are those of Prof. Rubinstein, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

As all readers will know, during the past four months or so a profound change has come over British politics, with Gordon Brown and the Labour Party falling suddenly, remarkably, and apparently catastrophically behind in the polls, and the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, forging ahead. No one, of course, knows whether this will last or if the Tories will win the next general election (due in 2009 or early 2010), but a Conservative victory now appears far likelier than at any time since they lost office in 1997.

In common with everyone else, I have been extremely surprised by this turn of events, which has come more or less out of the blue. When in mid-2007, Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he entered with an enormous amount of goodwill and appeared to many to be just the ticket Britain needed after ten years of Tony Blair.

In complete contrast, David Cameron appeared to many, probably most, Tories as a bizarre, unsettling, and puzzling quasi-Liberal Democrat who pointedly disbelieved in traditional Tory values. He was unable to achieve a true ascendancy over his own party and still less with the average voter, and was far behind in the polls.

For many Tories, the last straw appeared to come with the recommendation by a Tory policy committee that parking fees be charged for ordinary drivers parking in a suburban shopping centre (while inner city shopping centres were exempted), a bit of mindless, politically correct dogma which could only have been proposed by rich liberals who did not have to worry about finding the cash to spend on groceries, let alone parking, and, in fact, had probably never driven to a suburban shopping centre in their lives.

This dead-certain vote loser - which was then rejected as policy by the Tories - appeared symptomatic of the road the Tories were taken. With David Cameron's other groanable absurdities, from "hug a hoodie" onwards, many Tories appeared more than ready to hold their nose and vote at the next election for Gordon Brown, a safe and reliable pair of hands, and the Labour Party - rather than the liberal gimmickry of Cameron and his inner circle. To many it seemed, better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

I suspect that by last September Cameron was in very serious danger of losing hundreds of thousands of normal Tory votes, while gaining nothing whatever in exchange, and was a near-certainty to lose the next election.

The remarkable change in the political fortunes of the Tories began with the proposal by Shadow Chancellor George Osborne - a man not hitherto noted for his cleverness, or for anything else - to raise the tax exemption on death duties to £1 million, a remarkably brilliant tactical proposal. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of pretty ordinary British people are - not to put too fine a point on the matter - waiting for granny to die and leave them her house worth £400,000 or so. Given the debt crisis so many face, they are absolutely dependent, in many cases, on this eventuality, and are therefore not too keen on Alistair Darling grabbing forty per cent off the top.

Labour - whose supporters are emphatically among those so faced - realized this perfectly well, and hence their own immediate and panic-motivated response by Chancellor Alistair Darling on inheritance tax.

While the change in electoral fortunes since September or so might be temporary, it does today seem as if a permanent shift in opinion has occurred, similar to the disasters which befell John Major and the Tories after 1993-5. Of course, an incumbent government, faced with the real possibility of defeat, has many means at its disposal of reversing its fall in popularity, but it does seem as if everyone now believes that a Tory victory at the next election is not merely possible but likely.

The question of why, beyond Labour's poor tactics and bad luck, is not easy to answer. Historically, in Britain when a strong Prime Minister who has been in power for a long time is followed by an obvious heir apparent who has been waiting to take over in a secondary but important post, that successor has generally proven to be an unfortunate choice: Balfour after Salisbury in 1902; Neville Chamberlain after Baldwin; Eden after Churchill; Callaghan after Wilson in 1976.

In effect, the successor has rusted in a secondary but important position which he performed competently - Chamberlain at the Treasury, Eden at the Foreign Office, for instance - but then found himself way over his head in the central limelight. It may well be the case that Gordon Brown made a highly competent Chancellor - although in retrospect this may well be disputed - but is simply out of his depth at Number Ten.

The virtues seemingly exhibited by Brown when he took over - rock-like solidity, gravitas, competence rather than brilliance, reliability - have, as the other side of the same coin, many obviously negative attributes - elephantine immobility, a lack of humour, the common touch, or imagination, a perceived inability to empathise with ordinary people. These have apparently also become highly visible. To many, a dour, competent Scotsman is fine at Number Eleven but not at Number Ten.

There is also the sheer mediocrity of his Cabinet and government. In all honesty, it is difficult to think of a single Cabinet minister in this government who appears to rise above mediocrity, or has a personality in any way noteworthy, let alone remarkable. I would be surprised to learn that more than one person in thirty can even name more than a handful of the members of the present Cabinet.

Labour M.P.s can, however, be expected to fight like cornered rotweillers if the polls consistently show that they are on the way out - and this is for personal as much as for political reasons. Many Labour M.P.s have no real marketable skills in the workplace, and - if they lose their seats - are likely to face prolonged unemployment at the age of fifty-five or so. This contrasts with the Labour Party of the 1940s or 1950s, which was comprised of either retired and worthy trade union officials for whom poverty had always been a way of life, or of public school/Oxbridge intellectuals and professionals of the Stafford Cripps/Roy Jenkins type who could easily reemerge in another sphere. Most of today's Labour M.P.s can do little else.

The Tories - if they hope to win convincingly and form a stable future government - will have to do all they can to win the next election, and not simply rely upon Labour to lose it. In retrospect, it now appears clear - and however much I, and many others, disagreed with its thrust - that David Cameron was politically wise to appeal, apparently successfully, to Liberal Democrats and unhappy Labour voters. This might well ensure him the 42 per cent of the total vote needed to win, although he will have had a good deal of unexpected help from Gordon Brown.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).


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Interesting comments, as ever. However I would be interested in understanding Rubinstein's argument more closely. In an earlier post, entitled ' A Report Card on the Blair Government', he seems to argue that Blair's legacy was not as benign as it could have been yet. And yet here he argues that the Labour Party's fall begin with the mistakes made under Brown. Surely whoever replaced Blair would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to command the support and authority of the country? Thus the Labour Party’s fall in the polls is not as sudden and remarkable as he appears to state.

Posted by: Lydia at March 31, 2008 04:03 PM
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