Gordon Brown became British Prime Minister a year ago

He assumed office of 27 June 2007. And it was a tough year for him.

Questions:

1. How would you describe one year of Prime Minister Brown in the office? Any successes or everything is now shadowed by election defeats?

2. Is he a good leader if you compare him with Tony Blair? What are the biggest differences between him and Blair? And what about Brown and leader of opposition David Cameron?

3. Is he going to survive last election defeats of the Labour Party? Do you see somebody inside the Labour Party who could challenge him?

4. Do you think he can win next general election and why?

Answers:

Chris Howell, Professor and Chair of Politics, Department of Politics, Oberlin College

1. It has been a difficult year. Brown has somewhat distanced himself from George Bush and association with American foreign policy, and attempted to refocus attention on core New Labour issues: economic competence and social services like healthcare and education. But he has been hampered by a weakening economy and a series of embarrassing gaffes.

2. There are some small policy differences between Brown and Blair, mostly over foreign policy and equality, but the main difference is stylistic or presentational. Blair was a far better communicator with voters and the media, while Brown appears dour and unappealing. Cameron is much more like Blair: an appealing character, with a flair for grand gestures. Cameron is considered likeable while Brown is not. In policy terms, cameron has shifted the Conservative Party to accept many New Labour policies, especially on social services. But his policies are also undefined, so it is hard for voters to know what he would do in office.

3. This is also a difficult question because, on the one hand, it is very hard to abandon Brown as leader after he waited for more than ten years to take over from Blair, but on the other, it is hard to see how he can recover from these local election and by-election defeats. My best guess is that, unless the opinion surveys show some recovery in support for Brown by next June, one year before a general election has to be held, he will be urged to resign. the most likely successor is David Miliband (current foreign secretary) who represents the next generation of Labour leaders. He is  young and very smart and seen as someone who can successfully compete with David Cameron.

4. As my answer above indicated, I do not think Gordon Brown can win the next general election. He has fundamentally failed to win the trust and affection of British voters, and there are no conceivable policies that will enable him to do so in the next two years. That is especially true at a time when the economy is likely to remain weak for at least another year.

Ben Ansell, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota

1. Brown’s first year has been surprising since his reputation was for a prudent, controlled style of management. And yet, the crises that have occurred have largely been crises of management. The three major governance problems: losing 25 million child benefit records, abandoning the popular 10 pence marginal tax rate (and consequently, raising taxes on a number of poorer citizens), and the collapse of the Northern Rock bank during the subprime mortgage crisis, all should have been caught earlier by bureaucrats at the Treasury and the Revenue and Customs. Brown was a very controlling Chancellor at the Treasury, so it is shocking that these crises happened at ministries that he was very close to. He has been unable to present an image of control following these crises, even though he was very adept at handling the terrorist attack at Glasgow Airport in Summer 2007. The election defeats might have happened anyway – Labour has been in power for over a decade – but they were worsened by the general impression given that things were out of control and that the Prime Minister was dawdling.

2. Compared to Blair, Brown has had the reputation of being more well-versed in policy details and perhaps less ‘big picture’, though like most impressions this is only half right – Brown has ‘big picture’ views on Britishness and on updating socialism for a globalizing world but these do not seem new since many of his ideas entered the popular vocabluary under Blair already. Brown is consequently struggling to present a novel agenda that could provide him with forward momentum politically. Blair was a more moralistic leader than Brown, with well-known consequences for foreign policy (i.e. Iraq) and also for some perhaps misguided social policies attempting to control ‘deviance’ (for example Anti-Social Behavior Orders that provide an extra-legal way of preventing ‘bad behavior’). Brown is less prone to these grand gestures, which helped Blair with the press (especially the Murdoch press). Cameron, in many ways, is indeed the Conservative Tony Blair, though that is a bit of a cliche. He has successfully changed the media face of the Conservatives to make them appear more centrist and in doing so now appears new and fresh (though many of his ideas are similar to those espoused by Labour). The Conservative Party remains very similar in social composition to twenty years ago, however, with many essentailly aristocratic members. Whereas Labour really did become a middle class party in terms of its leadership during the late 1990s, that is not yet true for the Conservatives. This may, or may not, make it harder than it currently appears for the Conservatives to really reinvent themselves.

3. My guess is that Brown will survive until the next general election. Labour do not have a history of replacing defeated or embattled leaders (for example, Neil Kinnock lost three elections) and there is no analog to the Tories overthrow of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Further, there is not a clear replacement leader other than David Miliband, who might prefer to wait until the chance to become leader of the opposition.

4. I would place Brown’s chances of winning at around forty percent. The next general election could be put off until 2010, which gives Brown two years to recover. Tony Blair had a terrible 2004 but won the 2005 Election quite handily (although against weaker opposition than David Cameron). And a week is indeed a long time in politics. But to win he would need to (a) undermine the public perception of David Cameron and the Conservatives, and (b) demonstrate a major turn in the Labour policy platform that proves attractive to enough voters to boost their support of the incumbent government. With the likely collapse of the UK housing market, that will be difficult. But one should never underestimate an incumbent party’s ability to maintain power.

Leonard Freedman, Professor Emeritus, Political Science, University of California

1. Brown’s first year began very well, ended very badly.

It began amidst widespread hopes that he would restore Labour’s fortunes after Blair, his polls ratings plummeting, resigned; and the great success of the Blair years — economic prosperity — was mostly credited to Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In his first months as PM Brown handled a series of natural and terrorist crises smoothly and efficiently. His standing in the polls soared. Rumors flew of an imminent general election to confirm him as PM in his own right.

Suddenly everything began to go wrong. After he and his supporters encouraged talk of an election, his polls began to slip, and he called off the election, thereby creating the sense he lacked courage and conviction. Then came the signs of economic decline, especially in the housing industry, the collapse of a major mortgage company, and, after long hesitation, the decision to nationalize the company temporarily. As civil servants left classified documents in taxis, and decisions on tax policy were announced and then countermanded, the impression grew of an incompetent administration mired in uncertainty and blunders.

2. Though he is highly intelligent and reasonably articulate (certainly as compared with G.W. Bush), Brown lacks Blair’s ready wit and eloquence and ability to communicate with the public at large. And in the weekly jousting with Cameron, Blair usually more than held his own, whereas Brown comes across as dour and heavy-handed against Cameron’s deft thrusts.

On the other hand, all of Brown’s blunders seem trivial in comparison with Blair’s massive error in enthusiastically supporting the Iraq war — the main cause of Blair’s declining popularity.

3. Under the British five-year rule, he can hold on until 2010. There are always potential alternatives, but none as obvious as he himself was as a successor to Blair.

4. I have a very poor record as an election predictor. Currently the Conservatives are far enough ahead to win a clear majority. But if Brown begins to make more effective and popular decisions, and if the economy and housing market improve dramatically, the public mood can change. There is always the possibility of a strong showing by the Liberal Democrats, which could produce a coalition government. So Brown, or perhaps a different Labour leader, could yet extend Labour’s term in office. However, they’ve already had a long run, and the usual democratic impulse to grow tired of the incumbents and turn to their rivals will be difficult to overcome.

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