Following what seems to have been a very successful speech by prime minister Gordon Brown at the Labour Party conference this week it is interesting to note that the incessant campaign in the media which has dogged him since he became prime minister in June 2007 has slowed a little. I lived through the last days of the John Major governments especially the period 1996-7 when his slim majority was slipping away from him. Major, of course, had replaced Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in November 1990, as Brown did Tony Blair, without a general election until April 1992, more than 16 months after he attained office (Brown has been prime minister for 27 months). This time Brown retains a majority and though there have been some divisions among his MPs he is not as under siege as Major was; he seems to have ridden the scandals over MPs' expenses far better than Major handled the 'sleaze' cases of his terms of office. Brown has come out of the recession pretty well too, being a leading light in the international response and overseeing a stimulus package which may not have achieved all that was hoped for but is certainly immensely better for the average person than the Conservatives 'we can do nothing; it's global economics' approach.
Despite these aspects, there has been an assumption in the media from the moment Brown came into office that he would not remain there long. This is one reason why David Cameron shrieked repeatedly for a general election, even though the example from his own party's history (aside from Thatcher/Major, Harold Macmillan took over after Sir Anthony Eden resigned as prime minister in January 1957 and there was no election until October 1959) showed such an election was 'constitutionally' not necessary, no matter what Conservative supporters argued. Brown had been commended throughout his period as Chancellor of the Exchequer 1997-2007, the longest person in that role since the 1820s, yet he was seen as reined in by Tony Blair so 'safe'. The change when Brown (and he is in fact Dr. Brown, having a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, but unlike in Germany it is seen as bad for politicians to have doctorates and as distancing them from the public) came to power was that the super-rich got nervous.
The very wealthy realised that whilst Blair was Christian Democrat in outlook, with authoritarian tendencies and in fact I have argued nothing more than a Blairist (in the Peronist and Gaullist styles), Brown was a Social Democrat and that seemed to spell an end (or least greater restriction) for their freedom to exploit the British public. Consequently, in their eyes, he had to go. This attitude is summed up by the coverage of the Rupert Murdoch-run, 'The Sun' newspaper saying it had stopped backing Brown, as if it ever really had. The power of 'The Sun' is taken as a given as its campaign against Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party during the 1992 election is seen as being instrumental in leading to their defeat just when it seemed they would be victorious, something they achieved by making repeated spurious claims about Labour's taxation plans that began to be accepted as true even by traditionally Labour supporters.
This time, it has not simply been the tabloid press, but also quality newspapers that have been speaking constantly as if it is fixed that Brown will lose the next election. In fact this easy assumption has done the Conservatives a disfavour because it has meant they have not had to put forward a raft of policies and months after I noted that they seemed to lack any clear policies very few seem to have appeared. It is clear that head of the Conservatives, David Cameron, assumes he will simply win by default and so has no need really to come up with anything distinctive.
Particularly critical is the lack of any policy on how a Conservative government will respond to the recession. This is partly because the Conservative policy going back to the 1920s is simply to do nothing in such circumstances. We may lack the tools for true Keynesian economics but at least Brown as offered things that will stimulate the economy and keep up demand and production and there are local initiatives as I have noted such as in Wales. The Conservatives have paid some lip service to reining in the bankers, but given that a lot of their support and funds come from that sector they are not going to properly restrain those people. Brown has found it near impossible to rein in the utility companies and bankers can we expect the Conservatives for whom these people are lead supporters to even try to be strict?
What policies could we expect from a Conservative government? Well, as I observed, some of them are being acted out in London where Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson has sought to politicise the police force. Aside from that we have seen him lose deputy mayor after deputy mayor due to allegations of corruption and we have seen moronic policies such as scrapping of 'bendy' buses which do nothing for the public but attract media attention. So, with Cameron in Number 10 we are likely to see a focus on headline grabbing policies which do nothing substantial (very similar to many of John Major's policies, remember the Patients' Charter and the Traffic Cones Hotline?) but which cover up some more serious political manoeuvring which takes Blair's steps towards authoritarianism to a further level and will see the police service become increasingly less independent and more directly under party political control.
I hope that the electorate can see through the constant grumbling in the media about Brown and note that Cameron offers nothing which will help people facing unemployment and repossessions. The media that have been peddling the line that Brown is ineffectual can offer no real alternative; many are just toeing the line of their millionaire owners rather than addressing general concerns of the public. Some in the media seem to have worked themselves up into witch hunt mode against 'the others'. I noted the 'Daily Express' headline last week claiming that no more immigrants could enter Britain because it was 'full up'. On that basis we should be compelling property owners to rent out the thousands of empty properties in the UK and stop families from assuming that 'three [children] is the new two' as is constantly stated. Lies about immigrants are now so widespread that it could almost be funny.
A taxi driver in Manchester the other day talking to me about housing started with 'Well, of course, all council housing goes to immigrants and then students...' before he even begun on his racist diatribe. The assumptions of these people is somehow that all councils are filled with liberal people prejudiced in favour of people from abroad and from outside the town, whereas in fact almost every council in the UK is full of conservative (and often Conservative) business people, as bigoted as the average taxi driver. Students are becoming the new pariahs in many towns, but immigrants remain the favourite. No student will get council housing unless they are a person already in a council house going back into study. The waiting lists are so long no student would be processed in the time it takes to study the average degree. The council 'housing' given to asylum seekers is often a detention centre and that to immigrants is usually a dingy bed & breakfast hotel room for a whole family, not a house. However, these assumptions run so deep that even council data will not shake these attitudes.
I honestly hope that the sustained, petty whining campaign against Brown fails. He is not superhuman but I can see that the alternative would be a lot worse. People make an assumption that a Cameron government would be much the same as Brown's, simply a little more glamorous. There is an argument that even if Tony Blair was standing as Labour leader now he would score few votes as at 56 (two years younger than Brown) in 2009 he would not have the appeal he had at 44 in 1997. Reference is made to Brown only having one eye as if that somehow makes him a poor leader. Yet, Winston Churchill, who suffered severe depression throughout his life has never been challenged for his fitness to be prime minister; Lord Halifax who almost became prime minister in 1940 had one hand and Franklin Roosevelt, US President 1933-45 could not stand or walk. In our jobs we cannot be prejudiced against any disability but it seems it is alright to be so in our political choices. I would rather have a leader who has suffered and triumphed than one like Cameron who has been privileged throughout his life. Most of us have never been privileged but so many feel we should have the people running our state to be from very privileged backgrounds. They are not born with any particular ability because of their social status and in fact it distances them from what the bulk of us experience in our lives.
I hope that when we look back on the period 2007-10 we do not see it as the protracted killing of a reforming government simply to install one which is far friendlier to the very rich. I make no predictions for the outcome of the next general election, as anyone who has looked at the 1970, the two 1974 and the 1992 elections will know, those who are confident of victory in British general elections are usually disappointed. However, I believe this media sapping of the Brown administration simply because his political slant is not entirely in line with the super-rich and because he looks the age he is, damages British democracy and quite possibly be leading us into a much more unpleasant civil society.