Paul Anderson, Red Pepper, February 1999

One of the strangest by-products of the resignation of Peter Mandelson has been the revival of the idea that Gordon Brown is a bit of a leftie – or at least a ‘tax-and-spend’ redistributionist with a penchant for interventionist economic policy.

The Independent had it that the chancellor was in the throes of forging a new interventionist Keynesian alliance with deputy prime minister John Prescott ‘to challenge Mandelson’s “free-market” legacy’. In the New Statesman, Steve Richards suggested that ‘Brown has been following a more radical policy than the pre-election rhetoric implied’, raising ‘considerable sums through taxation’ to spend on schools, hospitals and combating unemployment. The Daily Telegraph grumbled in a leader about Brown presiding over ‘huge rises in public spending and taxation’.

There were even a few soft left MPs who put in a good word for Gordon and made approving noises about a potential Brown-Prescott axis in the cabinet.

If only. Of course, there was a time when Brown was undoubtedly a man of the left. Back in 1975, in his introduction to The Red Paper on Scotland, he advocated ‘the extension of self-management at the workplace’, ‘a planned economy’ and ‘public control of banks, insurance and pension companies . . . without compensation’ . In the first few years after he became an MP in 1983, he was a straight-down-the-line centre-left Tribunite.

Anyone who has seen him on Tribune platforms at Labour conferences knows that he has never lost the knack of turning on the left-wing rhetoric. But since joining the shadow cabinet in 1988, his record has been one of cautious right-wing pragmatism.

In 1988-89, it was Brown, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, who played the leading role in eliminating promises of extra public spending from Labour’s policy review documents. In 1989-90, as shadow trade and industry secretary, he ensured that all traces of Bryan Gould’s radical Keynesianism were dumped from Labour’s programme.

From 1992, as shadow chancellor, Brown was the key figure behind the abandonment of Labour’s promise of modest income tax increases to pay for modest increases in child benefit and pensions. Before Black Wednesday in September 1992, he committed Labour to a policy of rejecting devaluation despite the over-valuation of the pound in the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. After 1994, he ensured that Labour did not argue in favour of European reflationary measures to compensate for the deflationary effects of the Maastricht treaty’s conditions for European economic and monetary union.

As the 1997 general election loomed, Brown was responsible for introducing compulsion to Labour’s ‘welfare-to-work’ plans. And it was he who ruled out any increase in the top or basic rates of income tax and committed Labour to sticking to the Tories’ spending plans for two years.

The chancellor’s left-wing admirers would have us believe that all this was a matter of electoral tactics – that Brown’s caution was intended solely to eliminate hostages to fortune. Deep down inside, they say, he remains an egalitarian social democrat.

Yet as chancellor he has pursued a course entirely consistent with what he said in opposition. He has handed over control of interest rates to a committee of anti-inflation hawks at the Bank of England. He has stuck to the Tories’ spending plans for the first two years, and his planned increases after that (however welcome) are modest. He has left income tax alone and made life more difficult for anyone on benefits. His response to the call from the French and German social democrats for an expansion of demand in the European economy has been bleating about the necessity of flexible labour markets.

Which is not to say that Brown is incompetent or always wrong. It’s simply that he’s an economic policy conservative – just like Labour’s first chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Snowden. Kenneth Clarke would make a more credible standard-bearer for the left.

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