Monday, 18 August 2008

What Gordon does next

I have an opinion column in this week's Public Finance about Gordon Brown and what he should do in September:

There may be an August lull in speculation over Gordon Brown’s future. But Brown faces a testing September, as he seeks to relaunch his government. After a summer marked by David Miliband’s veiled leadership bid, and some unions backing Alan Johnson as an alternative, Brown will need to do much more than produce a strong economic plan or a cracking conference speech to survive.

This is not just about communications. The PM fares badly against the former public relations professional, David Cameron. But with a far clearer sense of where he and his government are heading, he could overcome that weakness and regain credibility for his government, while exposing the paucity of Conservative thinking. This means having the right policies and the right team to deliver them.

Brown’s problems owe much to a combination of confused messages on key policies and a tendency to substitute micromanagement for strategic focus. The recently leaked memo, supposedly written by Tony Blair last year, complained that Brown had “dissed” New Labour's own record, warning that this was “a fatal mistake if we do not correct it."

To be fair, since January, Brown has started to change tack. There has been more clarity in the government’s education, health, energy and welfare reform policies.

But this has been ignored by a media that has viewed the government as past its sell-by date - a process that has been exacerbated by the earlier ‘dissing’ of reforms. Both the public and the commentariat believe that Labour is playing second fiddle to the Tories in the battle of ideas.

Education is a good example. Tinkering with the independence of academies, an attack on church school admissions and confusion over the future of A levels have enabled the Conservatives’ astute spokesman, Michael Gove, to win an intellectual advantage over the schools secretary Ed Balls. This at a time when Gove has been ditching support for new grammar schools and embracing Labour’s academies alternative.

In fact, Brown has expanded academies faster than was planned by Blair. Balls has targeted 638 low-attaining secondary schools in the inner cities for rapid improvement and Brown has been keen to use academies as an instrument for school reform. But the prime minister’s early reluctance to sing their praises for fear of upsetting backbenchers has given Gove an advantage on a subject that was Labour’s own.

Across several policy areas, stealthy radicalism has meant that Brown has been denied any credit as a reformer. In part, this is the result of a wish to avoid confronting ‘Old Labour’ backbenchers who supported him while he was leader-in-waiting. But it is also a reflection of his own voracious appetite for detail, which means that he can too often become obsessed with minutiae while missing the big picture.

So, if the refreshed Brown is to remake his mark, he needs to become a strategic leader who uses his formidable intellect – and the brainpower of his policy, strategy and delivery specialists in No 10 – to focus on the issues that matter most, leaving ministers and their departments to work on the rest. And he needs to be very clear to the public about those priorities and their radicalism.

A sharper focus could start to turn Labour fortunes around. Aside from any housing and economic stimuli, this might mean polyclinics in health, turning around failing schools and cutting violent crime. Brown would be regularly briefed on progress, and could insist on action where it was not being taken, while using his ministers to ensure that these policies were far better communicated.

That means having the right people in place. In schools and health, much of the leg-work is already being done by Lord Adonis and Lord Darzi. If Ed Balls gets his expected promotion, a strong pro-reform schools secretary, like John Hutton or Hazel Blears, would be vital. Alan Johnson should stay at health, but might also provide stronger communications of the government’s message, possibly as deputy PM; Jacqui Smith has the right down-to-earth instincts for the Home Office, but has suffered from a rival Home Secretary in Jack Straw at Justice.

If Smith is to stay, it would be wise to move Straw, perhaps back to the Foreign Office, while making David Miliband Chancellor, moves that would show both boldness and self-confidence. Brown may also want to bring back strong ex-ministers like John Reid, Alan Milburn or David Blunkett, though mischievous speculation about Milburn as Miliband’s likely Chancellor may reduce his chances.

But the reshuffle will be a one day wonder unless it is accompanied by a much more strategic approach from Downing Street. If Brown is ready radically to change the way he does business he could turn Labour’s fortunes around, as well as his own.