Tagged: blair

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown, aggressive? Really?

Deceit, anger, and a personality hung out to dry in public.

Sadly, I’m not talking about the much publicised split of Cheryl and Ashley, but the depiction of Gordon Brown as a violent bully, as outlined by Andrew Rawnsley in his new book, The End of the Party. I’m 150 pages in and it’s engrossing reading.

Closely following Brown’s love-in television performance with Piers Morgan, The End of the Party has created a media and political tempest, with fingers being pointed and previous statements vehemently denied.

Downing Street has predictably gone over the top, expressing three different denials in 48 hours. Mandelson and co. have all been wheeled out to give conferences stating that “the government have better things to do than chase around newspapers”.

This is strangely at odds with an executive who have constantly issued statements rubbishing Rawnsley as a hack just out to make a name for himself.

There’s a feverish desire to know what other people get up to in this country. We can deny it all we want, but there’s a reason why Heat sells almost half a million copies per issue. Compare that with the New Statesman’s paltry 27,000 copies, and it’s fair to say that a lot of us care a lot more about what politicians do in their spare time as opposed to on the job.

Interestingly, this is not a problem that has affected the rest of Europe. Until the last election, the French regarded politician’s private lives to be off limits. They reasoned that as long as elected representatives turned up and did the job properly, why worry what their personalities are like?

It’s a topic always open to debate, mainly in the vein of the public’s right to know versus suitability for the job.

Back to Brown. We have always known him as the dour Scotsman. Standing scowling for all those years in the shadow of effervescent, grinning Tony Blair.

So revelations confirming these suspicions shouldn’t raise as many eyebrows as they have. Commentators and former politicians (notably John Prescott, in an explosive rant on Newsnight) have been quick to criticise Rawnsley, accusing him of a bad sense of timing with the general election looming, and writing off the book as mere sensationalism.

On the contrary, if the book were to be released at any time during Brown’s premiership, now would be the best time. Remember all the fuss kicked up in June last year? Disastrous results in the local and European elections for Labour, coupled with James Purnell resigning from cabinet and imploring Brown to step down, to give the party “a fighting chance of winning the next election”.

If Rawnsley had decided to go to print then, he would’ve delivered the knockout punch to Brown’s ageing and wearied prizefighter.

As it is, we’re at the point of no return. There is no chance of an interior Labour party revolt now. The general election is mooted to be in May, and not even the most audacious of politicians would dare challenge Brown’s leadership now.

So what of the book? At 670 pages, and a staggering 80 pages of references and sources, Bridget Jones it ain’t. But what it does do is inform and offer a fascinating insight into life at Westminster.

Most gripping are the last days of Tony Blair in power, his character weakened by both press cynicism, troubles in government, and an aggressive chancellor knocking on the door of Number 10. When he leaves, as a shell of the optimistic and youthful man elected in 1997, the book concentrates on Brown and his attempts to win round the electorate and a party who are forever embroiled in petty disputes and power plays.

Inevitably, the book has been reported as an anti-Labour hatchet job on Brown. However, further reading reveals that it is not entirely condemning of his character and policy decisions. Much is made of his purposeful desire to get things done, to react to situations positively and quickly. Even those who clearly favoured Blair as leader admit they cannot help but be impressed by his pragmatism and other positive attributes.

The book’s contents will undoubtably provide ammunition for David Cameron’s weekly bout of verbal tennis at Prime Minister’s Questions. But he needs to tread carefully. With the Conservatives now at the lowest poll rating for two years, Cameron has his own matters to address regarding how to turn rhetoric into cast iron policies that will gather votes.

Those who predicted a quiet election have been proven wrong.


Rawnsley: Cameron Uncovered

Some journalists court controversy wherever they go.

Some remain eloquent and cerebral.

Andrew Rawnsley manages to achieve both.

Tonight, the Observer’s Political Commentator and Associate Editor presented Dispatches: Cameron Uncovered, shining a light on the modern Conservative Party.
It followed ground previously trodden in Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party, this time turning on David Cameron and chums.

Understandable parallels were drawn between Cameron’s media persona and Tony Blair’s ascent to power.

We now know Blair to be style over substance, favouring actions over detail and rhetoric over evidence. Cameron is cut from the same political cloth, enjoying the medium of television, never more at home than when wowing an audience.

A crucial difference is the historical and political context, and this is at the crux of why Britain has yet to warm to Cameron and his faceless neophytes. New Labour stormed Downing Street on the back of 18 years of Tory power. 18 years of broken unions, unsavoury MPs and uncertain leadership. Here was Blair, crusading for our rights, for a new Britain, a new dawn…well, we know what happened next.

The fact remains that the Labour government has limped, rather than sprinted to the finishing line of this year’s general election. But Cameron doesn’t have the benefit of public optimism that Blair had carrying him into the landslide 1997 election.

Britain is wearied by recession and by revelations like the expenses scandal. The public do not trust their elected representatives anymore. Pre-1997, Labour made much of their squeaky-clean MPs in contrast to the sleazy and clapped out Tory counterparts.

Today no such disctinction can be made. Cameron’s pretense of a party representing the right choice has been stripped down to a cheap veneer. With hindsight we wistfully remember how so many of us were credulous to Blair’s oratorical skill. For the Tories, this distrust is spreading before the election has even happened.

It is said that parties tend to return to traditional policies during times of economic hardship. Health, provisions and security are all prioritised. Plainly, this attitude also manifests itself in our political leaders.

Britain is sick of Labour. But where to turn? Not to the Tories, who seem to offer similar policy but with a leader so prepped in media training that no one believes a word. Not to the Liberal Democrats, who have missed the ship of capitalising on the two major parties’ failure to capture the public imagination.

No, in times like these, polls show that we’re closer than ever to picking Gordon and co.

The last 13 years haven’t been perfect, but best stick to the devil we know.


A week in politics

My my, what an engrossing run up to the election this is proving to be.

Andrew Rawnsley, erudite journalist, author and The Observer’s Chief Political Commentator is to publish his new book,The End of the Party on 1st March.

As expected, the allegations painting Gordon Brown as a violent bully have made big news. Let’s track the timeline of events which culminated in this latest mishap for the Prime Minister:

31st January: Simon Walters, Mail on Sunday Political Editor, reports that Rawnsley’s book makes allegations that Brown physically attacked members of his staff.

Rawnsley’s publishers were sure that this was leaked to the Mail by No.10, in order to weaken the impact of the story. It’s apparent that Downing Street has been preparing itself for weeks in anticipation of the book’s release.

20th February: Brown appears on Channel 4 News, telling them “I have never hit anyone in my life”.

21st February: Brown gives an interview to the Independent on Sunday, talking about his own personality traits, and the importance of standing up for what he believes in.

This is interesting timing by Brown. Only the week before he’d conducted a Piers Morgan interview, which for all intents and purposes, was an attempt to present himself as a likeable and trustworthy man. The Observer had been advertising it’s new look format with the promise of “extracts from Andrew Rawnsley’s new book”. Furthermore, Rawnsley never made the allegation that Brown hit anybody. Clearly alarm bells the size of the budget deficit were ringing at No.10.

21st February: The Observer publishes the first extract of the book, with more to be serialised over the coming weeks. The Labour Party is described as being a hotch-potch of opinions and agendas over whether Brown should seek a mandate in the form of a snap election in 2007. Brown is described as grabbing his Deputy Chief of Staff, Gavin Kelly, by his suit lapels and shouting “they’re out to get me!”.

Also released was a brilliantly melodramatic animation by Taiwanese TV, which portrays the PM as a Jason Bourne-esque tough guy:

22nd February: Peter Mandelson defends Brown’s character, saying: “No one tolerates bullying in this government or in any part of this government. Period. Full stop. That’s it. If you think we’re going to spend our time chasing around newspapers that want a splash on their front pages, let me tell you: we’ve got better things to do with our lives.”

All very well, but if the government aren’t concerned, why the constant vehement denials and continued appraisals of Brown’s behaviour?

22nd February: Rawnsley appears on Newsnight to defend his book. Facing criticism from many party members and an incredulous Paxman, he nonetheless sticks by his allegations. He names one source as “24 Carat”, and points out the three different denials of truth by No. 10 in 48 hours as a mark of how panicked they are. This edition was also notable forPaxman uttering the F-Word, (albeit whilst quoting).

If Mandelson stands by his line that the Government has “better things to do”, then why the constant media appearances? Three separate denials, along with a television and newspaper interview in a mere two days shows a No. 10 that is more shaken than it’d like us to believe.

25th February: New allegations come to light regarding the relationship between Brown and Blair, as well as Alistair Darling. David Cameron accused the PM of being “at war” with his Chancellor, to much schoolboy laugher in the Commons. Also revealed was another disclosure from the book, alleging that during their final confrontation as Blair stepped down, Brown repeatedly shouted “You ruined my life!”

25th February: Andrew Rawnsley appears on The Guardian’s Politics podcast, arguing that “the public feel more interested and refreshed when politicians are open”.

26th February: Rawnsley’s publishers, Viking, announce they’ve upped the initial print run from 18,000 to 26,000 copies. A minor point perhaps, but clearly blanket press coverage has provided an opportunity for publishers to cash in on a book which previously only garnered interest in political and media circles.

All this is very gripping, and high drama indeed. Those who wrote off this election as a grindingly slow, insipid process have been proved wrong. Despite all this, polls show that the Conservatives only lead by 7 points in the polls, their lowest point in over two years.

I’ll update this entry as new aspects introduce themselves, possibly with a comment piece once the whole thing has come to a conclusion.

Labour’s Failure on Education

“Education, education, education”
This was the mantra with which Tony Blair began his first term as Prime Minister, as Labour campaigned to bring classroom excellence to the top of their political agenda. 
Over the next few months, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls will start blitzing the public with endless rhetoric about how education still remains this government’s number one priority. What’s that? A general election on the horizon you say? How fortunate.
But have Labour succeeded since election and three successive terms? There’s no doubting the level of money invested (doubling spending from £29bn in 1997, to £63bn in 2007) but moreover, have funds been spent wisely? Core “per pupil” funding has risen by 55%, while there are now in excess of 35,000 more teachers than ten years ago. 
Initially, in the few years after Labour’s election in 1997, exam results soared, ministers patted each other on the back, and Cool Britannia seemed to be talking the talk, at least. But then a major flaw reared its head. The reason for the rise in exam performance was that teachers were now teaching students to the test. After this initial flourish producing better results, the marks fell into a lull. No more could be done to improve results, as teachers were still working from a rigid structure that was performance based. 
Now teachers feel helpless when they face classes made up of a whole array of different abilities. There is no flexibility, and the national plan dictates that the teachers move on with the lesson, no matter how many children are left behind. I remember in my own school, a despairing teacher saying he’d love to discuss abstract concepts and literature, only to concede “it’s not on the syllabus”, and continue handing out past papers. Children are no longer being taught subjects. They are being taught to pass an exam. Cramming information into the brain during revision and then regurgitating it onto paper, without little idea of context or any real relevance. How can we hope to impassion young people about the arts and humanities, when the very nature of the education system is so sterile?
Labour have turned what should be a bottom-up system into a top-down structure. We need to start nurturing children at the earliest age possible, not throw them into a world of bureaucracy and exam neurosis. By the time so called “problem children” reach secondary school, it’s often too late for teachers to help them. By starting the process of encouraging free and unrestrained learning earlier, we can reduce the chances of encountering stumbling blocks later in life.
Despite all this, of late the focus has not been on primary and secondary education, but higher education. 
Labour set the bar high, with a target of getting 50% of young people into higher education by 2010. They’ve come extremely close, with recent figures showing 47% of people aged 18-25 are in higher education. But has it really reaped rewards? The government line is that getting more people into university is more important than ever to secure the country’s future and the health of the economy. 
But the failings lie in projecting such an exact figure for getting young people into higher education. University applications have gone up dramatically, but that doesn’t mean they’ve produced more industrious and independent graduates. Having an undergraduate degree has now become the bare minimum for most job applications. By proxy, anyone wishing to pursue their dream career must attend university. Furthermore, people who shouldn’t be at university are being encouraged to apply, so determined are Labour to reach that magical 50%. These are not students being equipped for the world of work. These are students attending university because they’re told they have to. All the hyperbole built up around “the best years of your life” has resulted in the myth that university is a must-have, to add to the list of things you do before you die. But it’s a lose lose situation. Opt out of applying, and you risk encountering prejudice and snobbery whenever you file a job application. Apply, and you enter a market over saturated with graduates, all with the added gift of thousands of pounds of debt. 
Labour cannot be accused of under-spending on education. But a mismanagement of finance and an absurdly rigid targets-based organisation can be laid at their feet as a gross failure. Throughout the system, from primary through to higher education, staff are encouraged to always meet the goals set, no matter what. This doesn’t take into account individual cases, “difficult” year groups, and other arbitrary factors. All it results in is a disillusioned workforce and a student population who don’t really know what they want to do, or how to get there. Whichever party wins at the next election, they must think long and hard about how to tackle education, and learn from the shortcomings of this government. 
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This article originally appears in the February 2010 issue of Chartist Magazine