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Brown’s folly

Satirist Rory Bremner put it best. Describing Gordon Brown he said; “It’s like having an uncle who’s been building something in the shed at the bottom of the garden for the past ten years. You look through the window and there’s nothing there.”

Former MP and minister Brian Wilson compares him to Donald Crowhurst. Crowhurst was the yachtsman who was so desperate to win the round-the-world yacht race in 1969 that he reported false positions and faked his log book while sailing around the Atlantic. It was only when it looked like he was going to win that the extent of the deception was exposed. Brown’s problem is slightly different.

It has only been since it began to look like he might not win that the serious scrutiny has begun. Inevitably there is confusion and muddle. What does he stand for? Will the real Gordon Brown stand up? and so forth. To a large extent the fog is a creation of his inquisitors.

When his coronation looked imminent there was a vested interest, on both left and right, to have Brown packaged as a loyal son of Old Labour, more true to the party’s traditions than Blair. Cameron was happy enough to go along with the pretence out of self interest, and it proved equally valuable in soothing the brows of the liberal middle class left.

All eye-wash of course. Brown was, after all, one of the principal architects of New Labour. Increasingly the New Labour project is being widely accepted for what it was from the outset: an aggresively right-wing, neo-liberal undertaking. And, equally important, there is no philosophic or economic alternative on offer from either the Tories or Lib Dems.

Nevertheless many, more in sorrow than anger, continue to claim that it is ‘the disjunction between values and actions that is so damaging for Brown’. But that can hardly be the case, as New Labour is arguably the most consistent of governments in terms of policy. At all levels there is disillusionment and disaffection with the Brown goverment.

But his critics are hardly any more coherent. One Labour minister quoted in the Guardian claims; “We’ve created an ideological vacuum. All major political parties have abandoned ideology. The Tories have done the same; they’ve abandoned tax cuts. Then, when Brown came in and talked about his moral compass, you thought ideology might be coming back. But it wasn’t. His actions don’t fit his words – inheritance tax, ending the 10p rate. So you can’t argue, this is what we stand for.”

But of course there is no ideological vacuum. What we have instead is ideological convergence. An entirely different beast altogether. Nor is it true that expressing concern about inheritance tax and at the same time doubling the 10p income tax rate ‘cannot be argued for’. It can, in the City or the Tory shires. How it goes down in the former Labour heartlands is another matter.

Brown presided over a boom based on cheap credit and mega City bonuses, while inflicting the giant mortgage on the nation that is the private finance initiative (PFI). His final budget snatched money from the working poor purely in order to score a quick hit against the Tories, but he never countenanced bringing in higher taxes at the top.

His government found billions to bail out Northern Rock, but refused to find the £40m to refund the struggling families who had saved for Christmas clubs through Farepak. In addition he is pushing ID cards and detention without trial, while his government has given councils and 318 other bodies unprecedented powers to spy on citizens suspected of the most minor offences.

Even his introduction of tax credits to help working families has been disingenuous, because the process of claiming them has deliberately been made so bureaucratic, punitive, intrusive and censorious that many of those otherwise entitled refuse to jump the hoops. Those who do go through it often end up in debt, and dealing with an autocratic and vexatious Revenue and Customs.

Recently it has emerged that 160,000 repayment demands made between 2003 and 2005 may have been illegal and will have either to be abandoned or, where the money has already been clawed back, repaid. Another 90,000 more recent cases are also to be reviewed.

According to a whistleblower, Revenue & Customs have been routinely breaking Section 18 of the Tax Credit Act 2002 by reopening tax credit awards without notification, even though there is no evidence of fraud. Almost laughably, it is here, of course, the 5 million workers damaged by the ending of the 10p rate are recommended to go, cap in hand, by New Labour.

Which goes to the heart of the whole affair. If Brown as Chancellor really wanted to help the seriously low paid in the first place, the simplest way would be to rid them of the obligation of paying tax altogether. But that wouldn’t do as it would be seen to bestow on them a civic right (who knows what they might feel entitled to as a follow-up?).

Far better to accept the bouquets from a credulous liberal left at the same time as making sure that those applying for tax credits understand that as far as the government and its snooty agents are concerned, it’s nothing more than a handout, akin to leaving a basket of leftovers on the back porch for the help after the feast. Tax credits carry all the hallmarks of a privilege granted. And as with all such gifts, if it can be given, it can also be – as millions will soon find to their dismay – taken away.

Like any neo-liberal government, New Labour is determined to end – only for those beneath a certain income, needless to say – the so-called ‘something for nothing society’. So after their new dentistry contract, not only have millions been left without access to an NHS dentist, but dentists are paid a regulation amount regardless of the level of repair the patient might require. Could the sign ‘Go Private’ be more heavily flagged?

It is the same mindset that forces people into giant GP surgeries, while at the same time openly wondering whether doctors ought not to be signing their patients as fit for work rather than signing them off. A proposal that would subvert the essential element of trust between doctor and patient at a stroke.

Is there a sliver of doubt that when Housing Minister Caroline Flint, a Brown appointee, questions the appropriateness of tenancies for life and whether council or housing tenancies ought to be conditional on the tenant having a job, that such thinking it is not reflective of the same obsession? This kind of kite flying suggests New Labour is only too eager to open up another front in its attack on working class sense of place and security.

During the week, the government will be trying to push through 42-day detention for terror suspects, and combating a rebellion over the doubling of the 10p income tax rate. No one, not even MI5, believes that 42 days are operationally necessary, but Brown opted for it in the expectation that it would leave the Tories open to the charge that they were ‘soft on terror.’

Equally the looming mutiny over the tax hike for the low paid, introduced by Brown himself last year, was to allow him to cut the standard rate of income tax by 2p in the pound and so again steal a march on the Tories. The doubling of inheritance tax thresholds was part of the same, as Brown saw it, astute positioning. But how clever does it look now?

Where Brown has tripped himself up is not actually as a result of the failure of long-term strategy, the flaw lies in the smaller detail – short-term electoral tactics.

As his biographer Tom Bower explained, having the ability to ‘wrong foot’ your opponent is what Brown considers to be the real essence of contemporary politics, particularly in a situation where near everyone that matters agrees on the fundamentals.

And as the agenda is irrevocably to the right, the skill is in always and on almost every issues being a step to the right ahead of your opponent. Horrendous though it all might be, of idelogical muddle there is not a scintilla of evidence. On the contrary: the solid Tory poll leads are because New Labour has been thoroughly true to neo-liberal type.

But “Labour’s not in power to make the poor poorer” bewails one Labour MP. Oh yeah? Since when? This is Brown’s real folly. After more than a decade of double-talk, obsfuscation and spin, the New Labour message to its erstwhile suppporters is now irrevocable and unmistakeable: “You’re on your own!”

One Response to “Brown’s folly”

  1. Tom Nolan Says:

    As a long-standing Labour supporter, I would love to be able to disagree with this but, sadly, I can’t contest any of it.

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