Short of sashaying over the waves, or flying Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000 (perhaps on loan from his good friend J.K. Rowling) into the Labour Party conference here yesterday, there wasn’t much Gordon Brown could do to keep the British press from writing his political obituary. With an election due sometime before May, Labour is currently third in the opinion polls, trailing not just David Cameron’s Conservatives but also the Liberal Democrats. Outside the Brighton Centre, a noisy handful of demonstrators shouting "Don’t they know there’s a bloody war on!" shuffled along the seafront, sharing sidewalk space with a more numerous assemblage from the postal workers’ union, protesting government plans to sell off part of the Royal Mail. (The delay in postal deliveries from strike action in London meant that your correspondent’s press credentials, mailed in mid August, still haven’t arrived.)
On Monday Labour delegates cheered Peter Mandelson, who twice resigned from the cabinet in disgrace only to be drafted back last year by an increasingly desperate Brown, when he told them "If I can come back … we can come back." And they loved it when Mandelson, architect of the postal sell-off and master of all political dark arts, told them "this election was still up for grabs." Brown’s job was to make them believe it.
With the sound system pounding out "What a Beautiful Day"–"I’m the king of all time, And nothing is impossible, In my all powerful mind…"–over a powerpoint montage of British achievement under new Labour ("Iconic Modern Architecture" "18 Oscar Winners in the past 4 years") Sarah Brown, repeating her performance from last year, introduced "my husband. My hero!" And then, as The Levellers gave way to Curtis Mayfield, , and the Prime Minister received the obligatory standing ovation, the inevitable question formed in my mind: who chooses the soundtrack for these things?
After 12 years in power–12 years during which the opportunity for debate and dissent inside the party have progressively diminished–skepticism is no more common among Labour party loyalists than it would be among pilgrims to Lourdes. And Brown’s speech had a long shopping list of good ideas: a new National Care Service offering free in-home care for the elderly; a promise that cancer patients will have diagnostic results within one week after visiting the doctor; an expansion of free childcare; using post offices for community banking; offering voters the right to recall MPs; regulating (but not capping) bankers’ bonuses and forcing banks to repay taxpayers; a promise not to cut spending on schools or the health service. Delegates, especially prospective Labour candidates, were also cheered by Brown’s u-turn on national identity cards–if not abandoned, at least put off for another 5 years–and by his decision to give local authorities the power to ban 24 hour drinking (though here, too, Brown was bandaging a self-inflicted wound).
But Brown’s death-bed conversion to populism also had a dark side: a proposal to force unwed teenage mothers on welfare to live in group hostels; neighborhood "action squads" cracking down on anti-social behavior; even more obstacles in the path of economic migrants. (In the case of his attorney general, Baroness Scotland, who was fined £5000 for hiring a Tongan woman who overstayed her student visa as her housekeeper, Brown has remained supportive. Baroness Scotland keeps her job. The housekeeper, however, was arrested, and now faces deportation.)
The one measure that really might have kept the Tories out of power, a shift to some form of proportional representation, was deferred until after the next election. By then of course it will probably be too late.
Waiting in the hallway before Brown’s speech I fell into a conversation with Carole Maleham, a driver from Rotherham who is also an activist in Unison, the public service workers’ union. A widow, Carole told me that one of the first things New Labour did was to abolish the widow’s benefit, replacing it with a means-tested (and, in her case at least, reduced) bereavement benefit. More recently the Labour-controlled council in her town responded to the recession by eliminating Meals on Wheels and ending the council’s laundry service. Yet she was in no doubt that things would be even worse under the Tories.
Brown’s main problem is not the recession (which he handled well enough to almost make one forget how much his and Mandelson’s "relaxed" approach to regulating British bankers was to blame in the first place). His lack of charisma, though incurable, need not be terminal either. No, Brown’s downfall will come because after 12 years of being taken for granted by New Labour, all that traditional Labour voters have left is the certainty that things would be even worse under the Tories. I suspect they are right. But I don’t think there are enough of them to save Gordon Brown.