Is Gordon Brown Electable?

Gordon Brown obviously wants to succeed Tony Blair as British prime minister. But it is less obvious that he is willing to do what is necessary to lead the Labour Party to victory in the next general election. In some critical sense, he must repudiate Blair’s legacy, which, at a minimum, means promising to take Britain out of the Iraq War.

Brown has longed to be prime minister ever since May 12, 1994, the fateful day when John Smith, the Labour Party’s leader in opposition, dropped dead of a heart attack. Two weeks later, on May 31, Blair and Brown met in a small restaurant in North London, and debated who should take over the party leadership. By the end of their discussion, they had made a double deal: Brown would stand aside and support Blair as the next party leader; in return, Blair would later give up the leadership to him.

Crucially, but inevitably, they did not agree when, or under what circumstances, Blair would fulfil his side of the bargain. Inevitably, they could not foresee that Blair would go on to win an unprecedented three successive election victories for Labour, in 1997, 2001, and 2005, and thus keep Labour in power for a record-breaking period of possibly as long as 13 years.

The key challenge for New Labour (as Blair re-styled it with his characteristic gift for spin), was the management of the British economy. Since World War II, most British governments tried to manipulate the economy for short-term party advantage, usually with disastrous long-term results. This lamentable tradition was common to both Conservatives and Labour; and yet, unfairly, it was the Labour Party that was most contaminated by the smear that it could not be trusted to manage the economy.