Review: Brown’s book reminds us why we need to organise to deliver our ideas

10th November, 2017 12:00 pm

Martin McCluskey gives his verdict on Gordon Brown’s memoir My Life, Our Times, which was published this week.

In the closing chapters of his new memoir, Gordon Brown writes that “in politics, nostalgia is a self-indulgent exercise”. Unfortunately, for many who will read Brown’s account of his life in politics, nostalgia is inevitable.

As we move closer to the Brexit cliff edge and live through a time of weekly cabinet reshuffles, Brown’s book is a timely reminder of what can be achieved with good government.

The list of Labour’s achievements, under the partnership of Brown and Tony Blair, is well rehearsed, but always bears repeating. A million children lifted out of poverty, employment at record levels, the introduction of the minimum wage and the extension of workplace, civil and human rights. None of these achievements should be forgotten.

There is also much of Brown’s early life, before his time in parliament and covered in the early chapters of the book, that is substantial and too often overlooked. He describes the battles inside the Scottish Labour party in the 1970s, alongside the likes of John Smith and Donald Dewar, for the party to back devolution. It is a stark reminder of the role played by Brown – who chaired Scottish Labour’s devolution commission – and other Labour heavyweights of that era in making the vision of a Scottish parliament a reality.   

This book tells the story of Labour’s major achievements with a level of detail and rigour that is typical of Brown. But it is in the stories behind the statistics, in the description of his path into parliament and in his reflections from outside, that the real lessons for Labour can be learned.

Taking stock of a life in elected office – from student rector at Edinburgh University to prime minister – a common theme runs through Brown’s approach. This isn’t a politician who sees the politics of ideas and the politics of organisation as a zero-sum game. This is someone who matches ideas, clarity of thinking and a clear purpose with dogged political organisation.

For Brown – and this is clear throughout his life – organisation has to work in the service of ideas in order to move Labour’s cause forward. The memoir is full of his accounts of battles and deals to push ahead Labour’s vision, and his ideas.

In his 20s, he struck deals with the unions to shore up his position on Labour’s Scottish executive and to push the case for devolution (at that time, not a way to court popularity). In his 30s, to secure his place in Labour’s shadow cabinet, he recruited Nick Brown to run his campaign, and pushed forward modernising ideas from within. In government, he organised to secure his approach to economic policy. And as prime ninister, he brought together a new institution – the G20 – to bring the world economy back from the brink.

At every stage, matching the politics of ideas with the politics of organisation and moving forward Labour’s cause. For the Labour Party today, as we think about how we take our party back to government, we would do well to remember that application of both ideas and organisation.

Many accounts of the formative years of New Labour have emphasised the intellectual weight behind the Blair-Brown machine in the 1980s. This was not an exercise in style over substance – and this memoir provides ample evidence for that – but in equipping Labour at that time with the policies it needed to win in the future.

The other theme that runs through My Life, Our Times, is the constant focus on equipping Labour for the future. In Brown’s early days in Scotland that meant fighting for devolution. In the 1980s, it meant reassessing the ideas behind Labour’s economic policies and attempting to build a new consensus. And in government, it often meant making trade-offs in order to come closer to achieving social justice.

Some of these trade-offs and the challenges of governing are obviously uncomfortable for Brown, who is candid about where he believes he fell short. In the final chapters, his criticism of neo-liberalism could be read as accepting the shortfalls in the way that New Labour dealt with globalisation and the sharp edges it created for many communities.

Just as throughout his life, Brown’s book ends by looking to the future and facing some of the major challenges that Britain now faces. It should come as no surprise that the future of Scotland’s place in Britain takes up a chapter as he lays out the need to find a constitutional settlement that can command the confidence of the vast majority of Scots, as Labour’s devolution plans did in 1997.

But it is in the chapter on the future of the Labour Party that Brown presents a challenge to the party. His mission for Labour today is consistent with what Brown has argued for over the past 40 years – “running a full employment economy and treating people fairly.” But “to fulfil our mission”, he says, “we must transcend” the differences between Old and New Labour and “we cannot afford to return to past conflicts”.

Why? Because, for Brown, Labour faces a new set of challenges brought about by rapid technological advances, the changing face of employment and significant volatility in how people vote. He sums up neatly the challenge ahead for progressives – “while technology has put a billion people on Facebook, it hasn’t lifted a billion people out of poverty.” Brown’s goal may be the same now as it was 40 years ago, but like all Labour modernisers his solutions are focussed on new ideas for the future, and not just those of the past.  

Brown has called his memoir My Life, Our Times, but the title of one of his final chapters – “My life with Labour” – would also have been appropriate. This is a book, first and foremost, about a life led in pursuit of Labour values.

There is much in this memoir which will be dissected by those who were involved in the events of 1997 to 2010. But for those of us in Labour whose memories of 1997 are as much connected with primary school as they are a Labour landslide, Brown’s memoir is a timely reminder of why we fight for a Labour government, the power of politics and the need to organise for our ideas.

Martin McCluskey is political director of Scottish Labour and was Labour’s candidate for Inverclyde in the 2017 general election.

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