Gordon Brown’s ‘Fightback’ and the Wreck of Brighton Pier
Open Democracy, September 27th 2009
Gordon Brown’s latest ‘fightback’ began with his interview with Andrew Marr this morning on the opening day of Labour Conference. It was fitting that as the two Scots sat in one of the Brighton seafront hotels the main backdrop between them was the withered wreck of the Brighton West Pier.
A more fitting symbol of post-war Britain it would be hard to find. The West Pier was damaged in the Second World War, had a seedy post-war afterlife, was finally shut in 1975, and was the victim of several fires which finally destroyed most of it in 2003. Its redevelopment plans have been the focus of interminable planning and development disputes, and its future, if it has one, is as some Richards Rodgers style ‘i360’ tower.
Brown shares many characteristics with the West Pier, having weathered great storms and turbulence over the years, while his future is openly in doubt. The Marr interview showcased the best Brown can aspire to in his late post-New Labour phase, ragged, tired, but trying his best in his tone and smile to adapt to the personality driven, celebrity politics which his predecessor did so much to entrench. Even Brown at his best though cannot do sweetness and light, and what he certainly still can’t do is humour or self-depreciation that Blair was so adept at.
If this isn’t an attempt at a complete overhaul and reinvention of Brown, much time, effort and rehearsal has been spent on Brown’s new lines and themes. He had new proposals to get tough on bankers’ bonuses with a new Business and Financial Services Act and recognised that one of the failures of the past twelve years had been that there had been ‘too little regulation’ and there should have been ‘more’ (1).
His plans he claimed ‘represent the toughest action of any country in the world’, a recognition that ‘enough is enough’ and that large parts of the banking sector just didn’t get it! Several times he referred to not going back to ‘the bad old days’ and ‘terrible old days’: those being ‘the old days’ of the Blair-Brown dual monarchy of lecturing the world on ‘the British economic miracle’ which turned out to be a mirage.
This is being floated as New Labour turning 180 degrees on its head to create a new set of defining lines between Labour and Conservative: red water, to secure what is left of Labour’s base and to try in some ways to address the anger, rage and fury millions of British voters feel about the lies and mistruths they have been sold by their leaders and institutions.
Attempting to fit the above into his long standing credo that ‘people in Britain have a very strong sense of fairness and a very strong sense that people should take responsibility for their actions’, he sketched from the above his desire to outline a ‘new future’ on the economy, society and politics.
It was revealing here what was mentioned and what was not. When he talked briefly about the need to address the crisis in politics and clean-up politics, little understanding was evident of how seismic the crisis of the British political system is, or any real specifics given. He did rule out David Cameron’s hardly relevant suggestion to cut the number of MPs, but opposition to knee-jerk tokenistic populism does not a policy make.
He skirmished past giving us his opinion on the al-Megrahi case, lecturing Andrew Marr as one of the people ‘who have most written about devolution’, and thus should know better. The last set of exchanges dealt with rumours about his poor health. Clearly anxious, confused and furious at having to deal with such issues, he spoke at first with some nervousness and a little humbleness about his life with poor eye sight from the age of sixteen. What he also did was completely avoid answering in any way current allegations that he is taking anti-depressants, which will cause these rumours rightly or wrongly to run and run.
Where this leaves Brown is a bit like Brighton West Pier – standing there, or more accurately, the remnants of it, wrecked, disconsolate, filled with past memories and ghosts, and in the way of the future. And in part a distraction from the fact that the problems Labour faces are not just about one man and his limitations, but the whole rotten relic that is Labour and what remains of its tribalism.
Message to the Messengers
This crisis extends far beyond Labour to the Conservatives and the entire body politic including the civil service, extended state, corporate elites and most parts of the media. In the run-up to conference the myopia of sections of the media on the crisis of Brown and Labour, and failure to see it as part of a wider story and systemic crisis has been plain to see.
Thus, we have the normally fascinating if leading Blairite apologist Martin Kettle write that the Brown fixation has prevented Labour from telling its ‘good stories’, arguing that:
What baffles me about Labour is that it has a record to defend, a shared understanding of why it exists, a story to tell about current and future issues, and an opponent who can be taken on – and yet it is incapable of persuading the country to listen. (2)
The slightly detached from reality Polly ‘Peg’ Toynbee who still thinks some death bed conversation of Labour to PR could somehow save our political system, went even further, imagining a parallel fantasy world where Brown says sorry and goodnight in his Tuesday speech (3).
Neither of these accomplished commentators of the centre-left show any indication of understanding what has happened in the last decade: that the state has gone from being a friend and supporter of people, to while in places still doing some of this, become an advocate of interests entirely antithetical to most people, and an ally of the corporate orthodoxies of the last decade.
Andrew Rawnsley was even worse than the above filling his column with nothing but gossip and low life ‘tittle tattle’ about the media talk on Brown, and in classic, lazy, incestuous modern media style focusing on the messengers as the message, not the message (4).
These different voices are representative of a Westminster chattering class that just don’t get the state of Britain, the fact we have been lied to, cheated and sold down the river. And they are a fair reflection of the burned out nature of most of the British liberal centre-left, whether Blairite, Brownite, Labourite, Lib Dem or just ecumenically ‘innately liberal’ like Andrew Marr.
One of the best pieces on the state of Labour in recent days was by Daniel Finkelstein. While he does not understand the deep-seated nature of the crisis, at least he has a profound sense of what political parties are in the modern era. Getting people to support Labour is about ‘feeling’ and that ‘voters support parties because of how they make them feel about themselves’ (5). This is something Labour hasn’t done for a long time – long before Gordon Brown became leader, at least since the march to war with Iraq in 2002-3, and maybe in all honesty, from ‘the Blair honeymoon’ in 1997-99.
Taking Finkelstein’s point to our political class and system, none of them have made people ‘feel good’ since those halcyon days of 1997, and since then, this class has colluded in a set of values, structures and system which has entrenched and underwritten the fact that people feel a sense of powerlessness in the face of the relentless corporatisation of public life and that we ‘have no alternative’ but to acquiesce in the globalisation juggernaut. Yes it is time to look for what makes us ‘feel good’, but also to act on our anger and to seek to make sure the political classes have no option but to get it!
1. BBC News, ‘Brown to ‘ban old bank bonus system’’, September 27th 2009,
2. Martin Kettle, ‘Talk of a Revival is Fantasy. With Brown, Labour is Toast’, The Guardian, September 25th 2009,
3. Polly Toynbee, ‘Gordon Brown’s Parting Shot’, The Guardian, September 26th 2009,
4. Andrew Rawnsley, ‘Gordon Brown has to break out of the spiral of decay’, The Observer, September 27th 2009,
5. Daniel Finkelstein, ‘Dear Peter, here’s how to revive the Labour Party’, The Spectator, September 25th 2009,