Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Labour Standing By Their Man

As Gordon Brown flies across the Atlantic to the US this morning to discuss the economic crisis with other world leaders at the UN, it's safe to say he's had some recent experiences speaking to a panicked audience. In fact it's hard to say which group is more terrified at the moment; the world's leaders watching the US financial system teeter toward collapse, or the Labour party faithful watching their party blunder toward impending disaster.

Just yesterday Brown delivered a much-anticipated speech to the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, following months of party turmoil which have seen his approval ratings plummit. The party conferences in the UK are roughly the equivalent of the US party conventions, except that they happen every year at the same time regardless of whether an election is coming up or not.

His speech has been generally well-received by the British media, which has called it a "rallying" speech by a "New Brown" that was a "impassioned defense" of his precarious leadership. The speech also followed a clear effort to crack down on defectors within his cabinet - including the apparent submission of foreign secretary David Milliband, who was thought to be considering challenging Brown for the leadership, but earlier this week definitively shot down those rumours.

However, yesterday's good press for Brown may be overshadowed by the news today that Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, is going to resign from Brown's government. This likely means that she couldn't give Brown the full confidence that he is now requiring from his cabinet. So Kelly has jumped from what she probably sees as a sinking ship. Who's next?

Current polling says Labour is destined for defeat at the next election, with Brown as much as 20 points behind the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron. However because the UK has a parliamentary system of government, Brown can call that election any time before June 2010.

So can the "new Brown" save Labour? Depends who you ask. Many in the British media seem to think that all the new Brown has to do to instill confidence in the British public is act vaguely like a human being.

Reuters wrote, "Today New Brown skipped on to the stage, cracked funny gags and had not one, but two kisses on the lips for his wife Sarah as the lengthy standing ovation reverberated around the hall."

I have to say from an American perspective it was amusing to see the British press describe the atmosphere at the conference as "a little bit Baptist church, a little bit Butlins — maybe even a little bit Blair." Were we watching the same conference? Here's a video of Brown's speech and the applause that greeted him - sustained certainly, but not the thundering rapture that some of the British press seems to be describing. Watch the beginning of the clip to see Ruth Kelly struggle to make a smile when she sees the camera's on her. She's probably thinking, 'get me the F out of here!'

Yet Brown's speech did seem to take advantage of the way the wind is blowing at the moment by emphasising traditional Labour values like social welfare and increased regulation. The main theme seemed to be that in these uncertain times, the British people need a leader - and a party - which will protect the most vulnerable people in society during this crisis. Though the British press is describing Brown's effort toward enthusiasm and humanity as being "Blairite," the content of the speech was anything but. Though Tony Blair invented "New Labour" at the same time that Bill Clinton was inventing the "New Democrats" in the US (both pulling their parties to the right in order to make them electable), Brown's speech seemed to be pulling Labour back toward the left. At a time like this, that probably makes perfect sense.

In Brown's words there was also a stern warning for those in the party who have the knives out for him. The markets and the population, he reminded them, would not react well if there was perceived instability in the UK government at this time. "The British people would not forgive us if at this time we looked inwards to the affairs of just our party when our duty is the interest of the whole country," he said to the crowd. For now, the stern warning seems to have worked. They may be nervous about Brown's leadership, but the Labour faithful seem to have concluded that the alternative turmoil could spell disaster not only for the party, but for the country as a whole. So, for now at least, they're sticking with their man.

1 comment:

Torsten said...

Hopefully this economic turmoil will teach anglo-saxon capitalists a lesson. Free-market liberalism is a recipe for disaster! Brown is wise to shephard Labour back to the social welfare values it was founded on - if that's truly what he's doing!