Gordon Brown's conference speech showed that he is a true son of the manse, says Jill Segger The man who would be Prime Minister made the speech of his life last Tuesday. Those ugly days in early September when the seething discontents within the Labour Party came boiling to the surface with such damaging vehemence left Gordon Brown with a tightrope to walk at the Labour Party conference. That he accomplished the balancing act with skill and integrity should give heart to all who believe that politics is an honourable trade and that the time for morality, vision and substance to return to the top of the political agenda is considerably overdue.
The Chancellor pressed all the right buttons in the opening few minutes of his speech. Drawing on the renaissance of the city hosting the conference, he reminded his audience that Labour Manchester is a success story. He praised the achievements of Tony Blair and made reference to many of the real economic and social advances which have been accomplished in the past nine years. He acknowledged that there have been tensions and disagreements between himself and the Prime Minister and apologised for the recent damage done as long-standing discontent and resentment hit the media. It may be argued that he could have done no less, but it was done with honesty and it was done with grace.
Identifying terrorism, globalisation and climate change as the great challenges facing democratic societies, Brown wove his belief in rights and responsibilities through the fabric of his discourse. There are many of us who regret that equality of opportunity has replaced plain equality as an ideal of the Centre-Left, but given that reservation, it was a delight to hear the man who has every likelihood of being Prime Minister within a year constantly referring his argument back to the essential contract which must lie at the heart of a decent society — namely that the potential of our people must not be wasted nor their life opportunities thwarted because of their postcodes or parentage and that individuals and communities must acknowledge their responsibilities to each other and to the organisations which serve them.
This balancing of rights with responsibilities can only be achieved in a cohesive society and in his frequent emphasis on building communities of shared value and purpose, the Chancellor did not shrink from venturing upon ground which some of the less thoughtful elements of the Left have long considered taboo. Believing that immigrants must learn the host language is not racist: it is a liberating necessity if the newcomers are to become full and equal members of their communities. Insisting upon knowledge of, and respect for, British,values is not the tag-end of imperialism: it is an essential component of responsible citizenship in a democracy. In combining a conviction that we must unite around shared values of freedom, honesty and decency with the commitment to root out racism and prejudice from whatever source it may come, Gordon Brown is not saying anything novel. But by making these convictions clear, a politician who describes himself as "proud to be Scottish and British" warns us against narrow nationalism and draws the attention of both party and country to the part all must play in meeting the ethical imperatives of just and peaceable living. Policy details such as a commitment to raise expenditure on state school pupils to the levels of the independent sector; increasing investment in social ,housing; devolving more power to local communities and promising that in future it would be Parliament and not the executive that took the final decision on going to war will all be welcomed.
In other areas there were coded warnings to the party that the next Prime Minister will not wholly dissociate himself from New Labour thinking. In supporting ID cards and floating the possibility of seeking to extend the provisions of anti-terrorist legislation, Brown will disappoint many. There will
also be a considerable number of Labour supporters who have reservations about his commitment tO expanding the role of the charitable sector in social provision. Against this must be set his promise that he does not see faith groups and charities as a "cut-price alternative to govern
ment" but wishes to harness what William Beveridge described as "the driving force of social conscience". Brown's vision of the morally responsible, caring society which he describes as "we, the people, working together" is surely one to which most social democrats could sign up.
The tone of a political leadership is at least as important as its policies. The Gordon Brown who emerged from this speech is very much the son of the manse. He presents himself as a man wedded to the virtues of work, responsibility and care for the weak and needy. For those with ears to hear, a new style is on offer. There is a ring of sincerity in the claim that he "went into politics to make changes" and that his trade "is not about fame, celebrity or image". He acknowledges that he is a private man who is sometimes awkward. He "believes in something bigger than ourselves" and promises that "we will listen and we will learn. We will never lose sight of your concerns and aspirations because they are our concerns and aspirations. We will build the good society and we will do it in our time." The distancing from some of the more displeasing aspects of Blair's leadership and the implicit criticism of its failures is coded but unmistakable.
Those failures have their roots in an increasingly arrogant approach to leadership which has been far too pre-occupied with image and a mistaken perception of modernity. It is significant that Tony Blair's response to the recent furore over his leadership was to dismiss his detractors as "irredeemably old-fashioned". That is the greatest insult in the Blairite lexicon. No attempt was made to address the areas of disquiet which had, in many cases, been set out with a clarity and intelligence deserving of a better response. The lack of consultative humility displayed by a Prime Minister who, chastened by a reduced majority in 2005, promised to "listen and to learn", is the disturbing flipside of that deficit of self-confidence manifested by his frequently ludicrous attempts to manage his image so as to appear a "pretty straight kind of guy". The contrived Estuarine pronunciation, the supposedly disarming verbal tics — "look, y'know, I mean" — all reveal a man insufficiently at ease with himself to believe that what he has to say is more important than the manner in which he chooses to say it. The weak insincerity of this pose may seem trivial in isolation, but in feeding into the dishonest prequel and disastrous management of the aftermath of the Iraq war and the Prime Minister's eager complicity in the geo-political agenda of George Bush, it combines to raise popular distrust of a leader who seems unable to face either himself or reality. Brown is right to put clear water between a failed leadership style and his own rather dour, more substantial manner.
Gordon Brown's speech has been criticised by Tim Bell, once Margaret Thatcher's press adviser, as "downbeat", Lord Bell chose to misunderstand its strength. This was not a rabble-rousing speech because that is not the Chancellor's style. It was the manifesto of a man reared in a Labour movement which had its roots in nonconformist Christianity. Gordon Brown represents the best chance that we have seen since the death of John Smith for the Labour Party and the country to return to that honourable tradition.