Nothing flash from Gordon
It was only a passing reference, scarcely worthy of note in the wider conference address.
But my ears twittered a little when I heard Gordon Brown say: “We will in our manifesto commit to introduce the principle of elections for the second chamber.”
So why the twittering, other than the aftermath of a weekend in which Dundee United lost to Gretna (Gretna!) and Scotland failed to turn up against the All Blacks?
Because the Prime Minister’s no doubt careful choice of wording prompted an instant further question:
“Which manifesto would this be? For which election? A UK General Election that doesn’t need to be called until 2010?”
Note the wording again. Our manifesto. Not our next manifesto. Or our manifesto for the next election. But our manifesto.
For a presumably proximate contest, relatively speaking.
Intriguing contrast of attitudes, here in Bournemouth.
Wendy Alexander’s speech opens with an apology for an election just past, the Holyrood election in which Labour lost power. If her speech were a book or a film, it would be “Atonement”.
By contrast, Gordon Brown’s would be “Passport to Pimlico” or some equally uplifting comedy about British pluck.
That’s because delegates here who live south of Hadrian’s Wall (and those whose focus is primarily Westminster) are eagerly discussing an election to come. October? May next year?
As one MP commented to me: “That was a manifesto speech. If I were one of the fifty or so MPs in marginal seats, I’d be telling Gordon to call the election now.”
Could the (relatively) doleful condition of Scottish Labour impact upon the PM’s decision, arguing for deferral?
Perhaps – although there’s data evidence which suggests that Scots are intuitively less inclined to vote for the SNP in elections to Westminster.
But back to Gordon Brown’s speech. Serious, purposeful, primarily domestic – with the exception of a brief reference to the EU constitution and a substantial section on global poverty and conflict.
It was mercifully joke free. Gordon generally doesn’t do funnies – or, rather, he recycles the same jokes.
The single transferable gag, if you like. Not because he is personally dour - you need a keen sense of humour to support Raith Rovers – but because his instincts and reputation are founded on serious politics.
People wouldn’t understand him, wouldn’t believe him if he started cracking jokes like a music hall (or, in Bournemouth, pier-end) comic.
Secondly, for a new leader setting his party a new challenge, the tone was in some ways remarkably old-fashioned – or, perhaps more accurately, an attempt to reinterpret standing values for contemporary society.
He evoked his own upbringing, his childhood in the manse. He referred to his young family. He spoke in Churchillian (or at least Attlee-esque) tones about his pride in being British.
Quite deliberately, he played upon Britain’s most familiar collective myth: that of a small nation, confronted but unbowed, standing proudly together against external forces.
It could have been another conviction politician talking, one who governed from 1979 to 1990.
(For the avoidance of doubt, I am using the word “myth” in its precise sense of a shared and instantly recognisable narrative. I am NOT implying that the PM was voicing an untruth.)
There wasn’t a dry eye in the one and nines as he praised citizens mopping up after floods, contesting foot and mouth and fighting terror (including Glasgow Airport hero John Smeaton who was in the hall.)
Mr Brown even turned to matron for advice. Matrons, he said, would be empowered to order cleaning contractors to improve their efforts in the wards.
In passing, of course, one might note that he is not in a position to implement such a reform for his own constituency of Kirkcaldy, domestic politics being largely devolved to Holyrood.
What, though, of the underlying message? He did set out to evoke a new approach, a “moral compass” of mutual help and rights blended with responsibilities.
He placed this in the context of an “aspirational” Britain where folk expected the chance to make the most of their talents.
His prime argument was that, in the global economy, Britain must compete with higher skills, more widely spread.
There is, in truth, little radical or innovative about this. That combination of “aspiration and community” is fairly familiar. Then again, that’s the pitch. No gimmicks, no gags. Nothing flash from Gordon.