Brown fires starting gun in race for Downing St

Author: By Andrew Grice, Political editor

In a fighting speech to the Labour conference, the Prime Minister positioned
Labour as the party of the “mainstream majority” and the “squeezed
middle” against a Conservative Party which he claimed stood for the “privileged
few”.

In a response to the MPs’ expenses scandal, he promised a landmark referendum
on scrapping Britain’s first-past-the-post system soon after the general
election. He announced a personal U-turn by coming out in favour of the
alternative vote (AV) system, used in Australia, in which people rank
candidates in order of preference. The bottom one drops out, with second
preferences redistributed until one candidate enjoys more than 50 per cent
support. Although not a proportional system, it would be an historic change
if introduced in Britain.

He also announced that voters would be allowed to trigger a by-election when
an MP is guilty of gross financial misconduct or corruption. A certain
proportion of voters would have to demand such a “recall ballot”
in a petition.

There was a surprise ambitious promise to provide free care at home for
350,000 elderly people at a cost of £400m; a pledge to maintain the schools
budget and child benefit and to enshrine into law Labour’s commitments to
raise spending on overseas aid. But there were few examples of the spending
cuts needed to pay for them.

Mr Brown embraced the Blairite agenda on antisocial behaviour by announcing
that 16- and 17-year-old mothers would be placed in a supervised hostel
rather than a council flat; “tough love” for Britain’s 500,000
problem families, he said. Councils would also be given the power to ban
24-hour drinking throughout their area and neighbourhood police would begin
intensive action against bad behaviour in the next few months.

The policy-rich, hour-long speech was designed to convince voters that Labour
has not run out of steam after 12 years in power. It delighted Labour
delegates and silenced the speculation that he could be ousted before the
general election ? for now. However, some ministers believe the question
will resurface in December if Labour fails to close the Tories’ big opinion
poll lead by then.

In effect, Mr Brown fired the starting gun for a long election campaign likely
to last until next April or May by repeatedly mapping out the choice between
Labour and the Tories. Insisting that he came from “an ordinary family
in an ordinary town”, he did not mention David Cameron by name but
implied that he did not. He admitted some flaws and mistakes but his message
was that if the voters decided to reject him and take a chance on the
Tories, that would not be “without consequence”. “The
election to come will not be about my future ? it’s about your future,”
he said. “Your job. Your home. Your children’s school. Your hospital.
Your community. It is about the future of your country.”

Drawing what he hopes will be the crucial election dividing line, Mr Brown
said: “There are only two options on tax and spending ? and only one of
them benefits Britain’s hard-working majority. One is reducing the deficit
by cutting frontline services ? and that is the Conservative approach. The
other is getting the deficit down while maintaining and indeed improving
frontline public services ? the Labour approach.”

Warning that Conservative plans to cut inheritance tax would leave even less
for frontline services, he said: “These are not cuts they [the Tories]
would make because they have to ? these are spending cuts they are making
because they want to. It is not inevitable ? it is the change they choose.”

The Prime Minister also rehearsed his election lines by claiming the Tories “got
the economic call of the century” wrong in the past year. The crisis
had discredited their pro-market philosophy, he argued.

He questioned Mr Cameron’s claim to have changed his party, arguing that he
could not deliver change for the country.

His crackdown on antisocial behaviour drew wry smiles from some Blairites, who
recalled that as Chancellor he often opposed Tony Blair’s measures to combat
it. One former cabinet minister said: “This is a very late conversion.
He obstructed Tony at every turn. He wouldn’t give the Home Office the money
for it. He wanted us to keep quiet about crime, saying that talking about it
would increase people’s fear of it.”

Missing from the speech was a formal announcement that Mr Brown would take
part in a series of televised debates with Mr Cameron and the Liberal
Democrat leader Nick Clegg ? the first at a British election. The Prime
Minister is expected to agree but is believed to have decided not to
announce it yesterday as it would have overshadowed his policy commitments.

Some ministers are urging Mr Brown to declare his hand and Mr Cameron said: “I
cannot believe that the Prime Minister is still sitting on the fence. I
can’t work out this morning whether he’s dithering or bottling, I expect
it’s a combination of both. But come on Gordon, get off the fence, agree to
the debate, bring it on.”

Eric Pickles, the Tory chairman, said: “This was a speech with no vision
and no argument ? just a long shopping list with no price tag. Gordon Brown
continues to treat people like fools. He didn’t acknowledge the mistakes he
has made or that his Government has run out of money.

“He talked about change and a new age, but this speech was full of the
same old political attacks and was firmly stuck in the past.”

The Independent’s expert panel gives its view

Lance Price

Former Labour Director of Communications

Gordon Brown’s speech showed that, in policy terms, New Labour still
understands where the centre of political gravity is in this country. My
reservation is that he still hasn’t found the language to reach out beyond
the party, who loved the speech, to people at home to persuade them to look
at him afresh and the party afresh.

Judi James

Body language specialist

There was real pace of movement. It was a high-energy performance that said, “I’m
up for the fight.” It was also the most natural smiling I have seen him
do, as he threw in some genuine humour. But I did not like the fact that
Sarah came on at the start. It may not do him damage, but in the long run he
has got to be able to look like he is standing on his own two feet. He must
not look like he is hiding behind Sarah’s skirt, or Peter Mandelson’s
trouser-leg.

Lynne Franks

PR Consultant

Sarah’s introduction was brilliant and Gordon started well. He looked
powerful, confident and energetic and did not seem like a man down and
finished. For me it was great to hear him supporting Harriet Harman early on
and back her Equality Bill. But at times, his claims, such as tackling
cancer, seemed over the top, and on issues such as pensions and free
childcare, the trust question remained. I was left thinking, why haven’t
these things happened already?

John Curtice

Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

The Prime Minister aimed for the right targets ? to remind voters of Labour’s
past achievements, to suggest he is on the side of the “mainstream
majority”, and, above all, to give an idea of the better future he
hopes to deliver. But it is not clear the whole was more than the sum of the
headline grabbing parts, voters may still be unclear about the shape of the
fairer, more responsible Britain Mr Brown says he wants.

Robert Bean

Branding analyst

Despite a typically tough, barnstorming flurry of policy presentation, the
Brown brand hasn’t really moved on. His reputation of “all substance
and no style” has been borne true with this speech. And whilst the
speech contains plenty of substance, it’s questionable if the voting public
will buy the brand next year. It’s sadly too little, too late. And there’s a
danger that he could re-write his legacy as “not enough substance, with
definitely no style”.

Neil Sherlock

Former speechwriter to Paddy Ashdown

The speech started well and was brilliantly set up by Sarah Brown. It
certainly did play well in the hall, not least the anger and passion shown.
The economy message would have been stronger if it had been more
personalised to what people are experiencing. There were some new policies ?
but did they weave a clear theme? The key question is: was it powerful
enough? Was it personal enough to give Labour a chance to get the choice
message across?

Andrew Hawkins

Chief Executive of ComRes polling

Having made a strong start, the rest of his speech lacked spark and impact.
But at least we know the campaign narrative: this election is different
because of the new economic climate. Labour will say the Conservatives
cannot be trusted on the economy because they have too much faith in the
markets and showed poor judgement in their response to the financial crisis.
This is a powerful argument because it exposes the Conservatives’ weakest
flank. Will it be enough to turn around the poll ratings? No, especially if
David Cameron gets a bounce of his own next week.

Buzz words

Mainstream majority: 5

Privileged few: 3

Our choice: 4

Wrong: 4

I [Gordon Brown]: 51

Tony Blair: 1

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