Friday, 25 July 2008

What now for Brown after Glasgow East?

There weren't even the top-hatted toff mockers to blame this time. Labour had an excellent candidate in Margaret Curran and ran a super-professional campaign. But it didn't do enough to prevent the SNP from snatching the seat by a few hundred votes. Glasgow East should be the signal of what needs to change in Labour. And that change needs to come from the top, rather more than at the top.

It is good that Gordon Brown is taking a decent holiday this year. But he needs to make it a holiday, and stop sending lots of emails to his staff and trying to micromanage events from his Southwold holiday home. Instead he needs to reflect on how to start the party's recovery in the autumn. Of course, the economy will be crucial: Labour can have little hope of recovery while people experience double-digit food and fuel increases, and see their home values diving.

But, an economic recovery of itself will not be enough. Brown's problem is not just a lack of empathetic engagement - though that is a problem for a modern politician - it is also a fear of spelling out a clear sense of purpose, including just how radical his government is being, which hides notable successes in aspects of the public services such as health and education (marking fiascos aside). Public satisfaction with the NHS is now at record highs; this is thanks to the investment and reforms introduced by the Labour governments, which has meant more frontline staff, much lower waiting lists and better equipped hospitals and surgeries. Yet, in polls, the public say they trust the Tories - whose main policy is to dismantle Labour's successes on orders from the BMA - more than Labour on the NHS. On education, a daft decision to create 'distance' from Tony Blair on academies in the first months of Brown's premiership has obscured their subsequent rapid and hugely popular expansion. Crime is falling fast - as even Tory commentators acknowledge, even if they want the credit given elsewhere. And the government has been radical on welfare reform this week.

Yet, there is no sense that Labour is making the political weather. The Tories, whose policy differences with Labour on the subject are relatively small and draw heavily on academies, are seen as having all the ideas on education. Even on welfare reform, where the work had been done before any Tory policy commission was born, many commentators were persuaded that Labour was just copying their ideas.

That's where the big change is needed. Tony Blair was very good at developing and disseminating a clear political narrative. With Gordon Brown, there is no such narrative, so nobody from the commentariat to the common voter can understand what's happening. This failure may owe something to the schizophrenic attempt to create novelty in the first months of Brown's tenure. If so, the time for real clarity is overdue. That means selecting half a dozen very clear goals for the government, on which Brown devotes most of his energy. He should leave the micro-management to his ministers, and where necessary, to his policy aides, but work relentlessly on those goals. These goals should be spelt out at the party conference in September, and he should devote considerable energy and the time of his delivery, strategy and policy people to seeing them being delivered. Any reshuffle should be done with this in mind, ensuring strong ministers who can communicate effectively leading on these goals.

None of this will require a huge change in policy direction. The last few months have, ironically, been the most productive and radical of Brown's tenure to date. But they will require a big change in approach by Brown and his team. Brown should enjoy his holiday, despite the Glasgow East result, and leave the day-to-day business to Alastair Darling and Jack Straw. After all, when he returns, he needs to be physically and mentally refreshed if his to defy the psephologists and establish the clarity of purpose that could - with an economic upturn - start to restore Labour's fortunes.

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