Now that the leadership election has been ‘postponed’ Gordon Brown can start to define his vision for Britain far more clearly. In politics expectations are everything: keep them low and most people stay reasonably content but raise them too high, and you run the risk of disappointing everyone. Gordon Brown learnt this – to his cost – last year when he teased the public with the promise of an early election and then cancelled it (or if you prefer, bottled it) when he realised that it was too big – and unnecessary – a gamble.
Twelve months on and both Gordon Brown and the Labour party are bruised, battered but, and it is an important but, not yet out for the count. The past year has seen the government stumble between one bad news story after another – be it the loss of the income tax details of 25 million people, the 10p tax fiasco or the loss of the ‘safe’ seat of Crewe. Yet the recent financial turbulence (which, potentially, could prove catastrophic for the British economy) presents Brown with the opportunity to lead from the front and - to a certain extent – to set the perimeters for the next general election.
Brown’s speech to conference went some way in presenting him as a man of strong convictions as he attempted to define the remainder of his premiership around the virtues of fairness, strength and trust. The question is: will it make any difference? Well it just might because the truth is that no matter how they try to re-package themselves, the Tories see inequality as natural and inevitable and Labour sees it as abhorrent and avoidable. I have no doubt that Gordon’s appeal for ‘fairness’ will strike a chord with many traditional Labour voters who may now feel that they have been given the green light to ‘come home’ to Labour.
Brown’s confident and impressive speech has given him some well needed breathing space. He should therefore take the opportunity he has been given to rethink the direction and the very purpose of new Labour. For example he should reconsider the arguments for the windfall tax on the energy companies, act to end the anomalies in NHS provision between England, Wales and Scotland and make clear the government’s preferential option for the poor. History shows that the public trusts leaders who have the courage to lead. It is surely no coincidence that, in recent history, when the government has acted boldly on issues as varied as debt cancellation, the introduction of the congestion charge or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind it. If Labour is to achieve a fourth term then its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action.
So come on Gordon, seize the moment and put end to the era of fuzzy politics and show the nation that what divides Labour from the Tories is far greater than any of the marginal policies on which the parties are united.