Insights from the UK and beyond
The Great Clunking Fist needs to say it better
I’ve been covering Brown for more than ten years — both at the Treasury and now at No 10. And in all the interviews, international trips and news conferences I have never heard him say sorry.
He’ll usually quotes a blizzard of figures or just repeat what he said, just more emphatically. He certainly would never concede anyone else could be right.
That was much the case when the whole row over the 10 pence tax row started. Brown wouldn’t accept that his abolition of the lowest tax rate could hit millions of poor people.
Fairly or unfairly he maintained that people losing out from scrapping the 10p rate would benefit from other allowances or tax credits. People would come to understand this was a major tax reform — he also cut the basic rate of tax to 20 pence from 22 pence in the pound. Nor were there too many rebels in his own Labour Party.
That changed last week though when nearly 50 Labour MPs looked ready to vote against the government. The Treasury quickly said it would make some concessions in the form of handouts to anyone losing out.
And then on Wednesday, Brown admitted he had made not just one, but two mistakes. He had not thought about the low-paid who didn’t get a tax credit and there was no help for some of the elderly who don’t get pensioners’ tax allowances.
This appears to be the new listening Gordon. His new strategists — former PR guru Stephen Carter and ad man David Muir — must be telling him he has to emote more.
Labour is taking a pounding in the polls and his own personal ratings have dropped sharply over the last six months.
We saw a bit of this a couple of weeks ago. Instead of crying his usual refrain that no country can insulate itself from the ups and downs of the global economy, Brown said he understood people’s concerns, their worries about their well-being.
On top of that, Brown is probably genuinely wounded by people thinking he was robbing the poor to pay the middle classes. One of his lasting legacies running the Treasury for a decade has been a more redistributive focus to tax policy.
He does care about helping the poor, he is never more passionate than when talking about ending poverty in Africa.
The problem is that he doesn’t do touchy-feely very well. Perhaps the great irony is that Conservative leader David Cameron — a child of privilege, educated at Eton and Oxford — does the bloke-next-door so much better than Brown, son of a stern Scottish clergyman.
Cameron often peppers his conversation with everyday slang and talks about “stuff”. Brown finds it hard to stop himself from talking about economic stability, fiscal rectitude and the long-term challenges facing Britain.
Brown may think he is building a better, fairer Britain. He needs to say it better.