Some thoughts on last night’s 2nd Prime Ministerial Debate:
Whilst David Cameron continued his efforts to manipulate and con the British public into anointing him Prime Minister through shallow sound-bites and comforting repetition, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown actually offered meaningful policy discussions on some of the major issues of the day.
Quite frankly, Cameron infuriates me. After last week’s ridiculous and transparent anecdote about a “black man” who supports immigration (a 40 year old black man who Cameron claimed had served in the Royal Navy for 30 years – making him, at most, 10 years old when he joined!), this week we had an even more annoying gaffe: when Gordon Brown laid into Nick Clegg about his opposition to Trident, Cameron said – in a very well-rehearsed way - “I have never uttered these words before…but I agree with Gordon.” A funny line in light of last week’s “I agree with Nick” catchphrase, but an absolute heap of rubbish because just a few minutes before, on a question about Afghanistan, Cameron had said “I completely agree with Gordon Brown” about how brave and heroic our troops were, and how we must continue to fight al-Qaeda around the world so that they cannot commit atrocities here in the UK. The news agencies this morning have not seemed to pick up on this blatant bullshit, however, because it gets in the way of a good sound-bite.
I also found much of what Cameron said last night to be completely void and empty: tried and tested Tory tropes about “people who work hard and save hard not getting punished” under a Conservative government, “people who do the right thing their whole lives not losing out”, and how, if a thousand business leaders think something must be wrong, then clearly it must be.
In many ways it was like seeing a magician try to do magic after you’d read the book on how all the illusions are performed: the newspapers and websites yesterday were full of inside information about what Cameron’s team were going to try and do in order to improve his performance from last week’s, and he did exactly what they told him. Talk more directly to the camera (he did), paint a picture of the Conservative Party as being the only real possibility for breaking free of Labour (he did), sell the terror of a hung Parliament (he did), and tousle your hair a bit (he did!) It was an absolute master-class in vapid talking points and well-rehearsed spin, which reached its crescendo when the same man who tells us that “Gordon Brown’s jobs-tax will kill the recovery” and that a hung Parliament will destroy the economy, accused Gordon Brown of scare-mongering! Brown, who stated – quite reasonably – that the Conservative Manifesto makes no mention of free prescriptions or eye-tests for the elderly, was taken to task for leaflets which therefore claim that a Conservative Government would take medicines away from the sick. This is apparently scare-mongering, whereas the entire Tory campaign, which is based around the fundamental premise that “we can’t go on like this”, is not?
But enough of David Sham-eron. What of the other contenders?
Well, once again Nick Clegg showed that he was a serious political candidate and that the Liberal Democrats are a genuine party to vote for. The only people to be amazed by this fact continue to be the media, but nevertheless, although lacking in the novelty-value of last week’s debut (and in the willingness for Brown and Cameron, fearing a potential hung Parliament, to suck up to him) Clegg remained sound and innovative on policy and fresh and bold on politics. Continually, he discussed new and practical ways of getting difficult things done, and showed that there were real alternatives to the fictional limits on action set in place by the traditional two-party system. He not only did well, he did amazingly well, considering that both Cameron and Brown were out to get his blood. After last week’s disastrous schmooze-fest, the game this week was expose the Liberal Democrats as a flash-in-the-pan novelty, and at that task, both Cameron and Brown epically failed. When questioned and scrutinized about Liberal Democrat policies, Clegg had answers; when grilled and interrogated about the nature of his character, his opponents were forced to fabricate fictions and put words into his mouth. No one managed to win a knock-out blow on Clegg, and far from showing he was a one-trick pony, he used this second debate to clarify and expand on positions put forward last week. Indeed, his performance was decidedly Prime Ministerial.
Which brings me to Gordon Brown.
Gordon Brown is the man who bank-rolled the two unjustified and illegal wars on terror, continued the Tory economic policies of the 80s and 90s, and sat back and made friendly with bankers instead of giving them more regulation…yet last night, and the week before, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his contributions to the debate. Just as I felt when reading the Labour Party Manifesto last week, whilst there have certainly been some tremendous failures and nightmares brought about by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, since 1997 the Labour Party really have done so many wonderful things for this country: be it the implementation of the minimum wage; furthering the equality of women, homosexuals, the disabled, and ethnic and religious minorities; providing better benefits for the elderly; improving health and educational services; attempting to shake-up the House of Lords; the Freedom of Information Act…the Labour Party have by no means got everything right (and even in their successes there could have been much bigger improvements and much better means to achieve them) but what they have done right has been important. Crucially, it is these areas of social reform that are most at danger with a Conservative victory (we all remember how things were under Thatcher and Major), and I thought that last night Brown managed to remind us of Labour’s successes, admit to some of their failings, and put forward an clear and appealing vision of the future.
When it came to substance and policy – Brown was a machine. He gave figures, facts, agendas and aspirations, and he did it all whilst pointing out the stark ideological differences between the right and the left in 2010. “Not everyone has the answers,” he told us, right off the bat, “but I say get the big decisions wrong and Britain’s security and jobs are at risk. Get the big decisions right and we can have a prosperous, fairer, greener and better Britain. Like me or not, I can deliver that plan and the way to do it is with a majority Labour government.”
And that is Gordon’ problem – nobody seems to like him. He could sit down and rationally explain an absolutely cast-iron solution to all of the world’s problems with a thoroughly costed ten-point plan of exactly how that agenda would be achieved by the end of the first year of Parliament, and still people would shrug their shoulders and say: “well how can we trust him? We’ve been lied to by Labour before.”
If anything is the subtext of this election it is that: Labour have badly let us down since 1997, we all know it, and we are desperately looking for an alternative.
Now, that alternative could be Nick Clegg, or it could well be the Labour Party themselves. A revitalized and re-energized party, starting a new chapter in their political lives and admitting to the mistakes of the past with the first General Election of the Gordon Brown era. Don’t forget – the past thirteen years were largely on Tony Blair’s watch, and because of the weird way in which Gordon Brown became our Prime Minster, he has never really had a mandate or opportunity to truly lead the party.
It could, of course, all be bullshit, but the 2010 Manifesto suggests a Labour Party that is changing – a more responsive, more democratic Labour Party, that has looked itself in the mirror, been woken up and shaken about a bit by the fallout of the expenses scandal and the war in Iraq, and wants to remember why it was put in government in the first place. In thirteen years the social and economic advances that the Labour Party have brought to this country have been significant and they have been welcomed. They have not all been perfect, and there has been their fair-share of mistakes, but the good things that Labour have done have been entirely the result of the significant ideological differences between a party on the right and a party on the left.
The Conservative Party, ideologically, do not care about social justice. They do not care about economic justice. They do not care about equality, the environment, multilateralism, or human rights. They simply care about what they have always cared about: keeping the better off, better off, and helping the rich get richer. Yet I truly fear that on May 6th our disillusionment and cynicism with Gordon Brown and the Labour government might deliver this country in David Cameron’s hands. When you’ve been raped and beaten for thirteen years, you don’t really care who rescues you, so long as you are saved.
No matter how much sense the Labour Party talks, and how much it fights to remind us of all it has done for us, the fact of the matter is this: thanks to Iraq, thanks to rendition, thanks to the economic crisis, and thanks to a thousand promises un-kept, the Labour Party is a broken brand. It’s like Toyota – they can make the best cars in the world over the next few years, but because of the problems of the last few months, nobody will really want to buy them.
“I’ve met some of the people who have rightly complained about the abuse that they were subject to when young” said Gordon Brown early on in the debate, discussing the Pope’s imminent visit to the UK. “It never leaves them, it’s something that is with them always and no matter what you can try to do to help, there is always this problem that they have to face up to every day that they were abused, cruelly abused, by people in whom they placed their faith and trust.”
As much as I hope it isn’t true, and as much as I wish for a Labour or Lib Dem victory in two weeks’ time, there was a part of me last night that thought Gordon Brown speaking of the cruel abuses suffered by people in whom they had placed their faith and trust was like a eulogy for his own party.