The extent to which the turmoil in British politics and the crisis in Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party has dominated political and cultural discourse in Britain was exemplified by the fact that the newly-crowned Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, composed her first poem as Laureate on the shenanigans of politicians rather than on a royal event or celebration. Duffy’s poem — titled, unsurprisingly, ‘Politics’ — has been called an “angry poem”. “The motive force here is disgust,” said John Sutherland, professor emeritus of modern English literature at University College London in the Guardian. “Disgust at the great machine and its dishonest mechanics who run our society.”
That disgust must have fired Britain’s electorate too, as they turned away from the mainstream political parties (all tarred by the expenses scam involving their MPs) in last week’s election to the European Parliament and towards fringe outfits like the United Kingdom Independent Party and the British National Party. But towards none is the disgust and anger more directed than the incumbent Labour Party and its leader, Prime Minister Brown.
Beleaguered by the recession, battered in the elections to the European Parliament and bruised by opposition from within his own party, Brown managed to hang on — just about — last week. Riding on the back of an opportunistic and timely Cabinet reshuffle, he thwarted an imminent coup. So what went wrong for the man, of whom, when he became Prime Minister in 2007, the political commentator and former advisor to Brown, Neal Lawson, wrote, “Brown could be the first Labour leader since Clement Attlee to recast British society”?
Brown took over the premiership with the unenviable legacy of Tony Blair’s Iraq blunder and the British electorate’s disenchantment with his being George W Bush’s ‘poodle’. The recession hit him hard as did the MPs’ expenses scandal. But even those can’t entirely explain why Labour should have ended up with its lowest-ever vote share in the European elections, and why it was trounced in areas like Glasgow and Lancashire, working class regions that had once defined the party’s political landscape and were its biggest catchments for support. Apart from dealing with the recession in any which way he could, Brown failed to map out a broader political agenda — for the party and for the country. His tilt towards the privatising of public services and faith in financial capitalism alienated the working class and the impoverished, old people and those who rely on State schools and public transport — the very people who used to form the backbone of Labour’s base. As Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted in a candid Guardian interview, the problem seems to be that Brown had somewhere down the line forgotten to communicate to his electorate what he and his party represented. Perhaps, he himself lost sight of what he and his party represented. “We have a responsibility to make sure that, come the election, [voters] know what Labour stands for,” Miliband said. “We were not being listened to, people felt that they had been forgotten, we neither inspired nor reassured.”
In all likelihood, the general election in Britain is eleven months away, and Brown has said that he is keen to learn from his mistakes, change direction, push for electoral reforms and make way for a more collegiate style of government. Reading his seemingly contrite speech after the coup was averted (“I am going to play to my strengths and address my weaknesses”) put me in mind of another besieged political figure closer home: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The West Bengal Chief Minister, too, has lost sight of communicating to his voters what the CPI(M) stands for. His agenda of marrying Marx with market economics and of ‘violent’ land acquisitions, have alienated his peasant cadre, the Left Front’s traditional working class support base and unleashed divisiveness within the Front. Like Brown’s Labour Party in the European Parliament elections, the Left in Bengal has been seriously damaged in the recent Lok Sabha polls. For both, the real test lies ahead; and neither has much time to turn things around. Brown’s will come in May 2010, while Bhattacharjee’s will be in 2011 with the Assembly polls.
Can they save themselves and their parties? Humbled Brown, at least, has started making a sort of an effort, trading inscrutability for humility and a public admission of failure. “No doubt I have much to learn about a collective way of leading the party and the government,” he said. Last I checked, I didn’t hear anything similar emanating from Bhattacharjee in Kolkata.