Monday, September 27, 2004

The need for vision

I spent my lunchtime watching Gordon Brown's speech to the Labour Party conference, and as much as it pains me to say it, Brown really is one of the top performers in politics. I may not agree with all of what he says, and many parts of it were intentionally vague to keep discussion on the content of the speech (in particular his continuous assertion for the need for "progressive consensus"), but at the same time he knows that the media will also be focusing on the rumoured Blair-Brown rift, and as one delegate said when interviewed afterwards, the clear message was to "leave Gordon alone".

For the real message from Brown's speech was that he has an alternative vision to the Prime Minister. Perhaps this is most notable in the section regarding the developing world - although Blair has been widely quoted as saying that Africa is "the stain on the conscience of the world", his conference speech in 2001 was actually very interventionist in tone, seemingly Tony's crusade to bring the light of democracy across the world. The will of politicians on this sort of matter is always very questionable, however - has Blair legislated to stop the arms trade to the Congo, for example, when it would harm Britain's economic performance? Brown was far more persuasive today - saying "the contribution we can make is more than money", and, in effect, that if we fail to show stable economic growth and success in the public services then how the hell can we expect Africa to develop along those lines? How can we meet the millennium development goals if we do not do our utmost to support the principles on which they are based at home?

I have never been a huge supporter of the drive to cancel Third World debt. Not that I wish to see Africans in poverty, but I think there are too many issues at stake here. First, did we keep a control of what that money was used for? Secondly, what about countries that actually did work to pay off their debt? Thirdly, those countries entered into those loan agreements knowing what the terms were. Their arguments would not stand up today in a court of law if it was an individual in Britain complaining about inability to pay back a loan. However, today I have a lot more sympathy with Brown, as he took the time to outline that in return for extra aid from the western world, developing countries must tackle corruption, institute anti-poverty programmes and open themselves up to trade and investment. This is perfectly reasonable - if countries need our money to help them progress, then it is only right that we should have the faith that they will use the money wisely and for the benefit of their people.

Brown's speech today was full of a vision for the nation and the world that hangs together as well as any currently promulgated - regardless of personal opinions on the matter. As I said earlier, too, there are clear differences between the Brown and the Blair vision for the country. Indeed, the speech was one clearly designed to win the hearts of the Labour delegates - references to the 1945 government, mentioning of Labour values - whilst still keeping a national agenda at the heart of it. Even here, it is very clearly a vision more to the left than the current Labour line.
Still seemingly focusing on tax-and-spend, but playing to Labour's new found reputation on economic policy (thus being able to justify sustained investment in public services - and a subtle attack on the Tories, saying their plans for cutting taxes would jeopardise this), the speech definitely stuck more to the investment side of Labour’s motto of "investment and reform".

I still think Brown is wrong on many issues. His taxation policies have directly led to the pensions crisis, yet he seems to have escaped a battering in the media over this. I could scarcely believe it when he made the awful announcement of granting 12 months paid paternity leave. Furthermore, the Labour spin machine was at its most disgraceful when it claimed that small business groups had accepted these proposals - the government has increased regulation in business dramatically and refuses to accept the impact that this has. And Brown still is far too trusting in the current structures of the public services (although nor would I go so far so to endorse the market-based policies of the Conservatives).

The one thing that Labour possess, and the other two parties lack, is a coherent vision, or at least the image of one. This is even stronger on the Brown side than on the Blair side, but with the government, you actually have a rough idea of what aspirations you are voting for, even if achievements have a tendency to be spun beyond belief. Listening to Brown today, you could tell there was some sort of cohesion behind the range of issues he discussed. I then put my mind to thinking what the opponents of Labour have as their vision for the future of the country. And couldn't actually think of anything. This is the true problem facing Britain at the moment - there are many of us very dissatisfied with Labour's performance but cannot find any other party to vote for (see the front page of today's Times). Brown may have a lot of convincing to do to establish a national "progressive consensus", but as things stand, he will not have any competition for the hearts and minds of the people.