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Monday, September 24, 2007 

Strength to keep Britain much the same.

As Gordon Brown walked into the Labour conference hall in Bournemouth to the pounding, mystifying choice of Reef's Place Your Hands, it was difficult to know just who he wanted to be. Hadn't we just got rid of the first celebrity prime minister, who seemingly spent his early days more eager to glad hand washed up pop stars than he was to actually settle on any distinctive change from the 18 year reign of the Tories? This was less the dour, sulking, "shy" and plotting Scotsman than it was the equivalent of one of the more vulgar American presidential candidates rallies, some of the delegates apparently so over-joyed to see the new Dear Leader that they almost swooned after Brown shook their hands upon his entrance, grinning ear to ear. As comedians have already noted, it's a frightening sight: while Blair's smile always looked suspicious, and cartoonists soon had him as the cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, Brown's smile looks as if it's about to break his jaw, such is the tension created by the muscles being required to do something they haven't in years. His hair, too, had been swept back, making him look almost eerily like an older, grizzled and more rotund David Cameron.

That echo of the Conservative leader was perhaps indicative of the speech to come, but for a while the intensely personal nature of the lecture, mentioning his upbringing for the umpteenth time, talking about his (broken) moral compass and his status as a conviction politician only brought back the old jibes of Stalinism. Private Eye has been parodying his utterances as being the equivalent of old Soviet propaganda announcements, and it was difficult, with the stage itself advertising the "Strength required to change Britain" and Brown banging on about those mystical British values to get past it. He stands for this, he stands for that, but we don't really know what he doesn't stand for, apart from apparently migrants who come here and take vital work away from our homegrown drug dealers, who'll be deported back to wherever they came from, and guns, which are an unthinkable evil except when used by an army that discharges them in a ethical and difficult but certainly not illegal situation.

Speaking of which, Iraq and Afghanistan merited one mention each, with our troops apparently working for security, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction, all three of which our continued presence in Iraq is doing nothing whatsoever to help. This wasn't a day for bringing up the old inconveniences left over by the previous accursed rule of Brown's predecessor, but for making clear just how safe Middle Britain would be in the capable hands of not flash Gordon. Students previously angered by top-up fees will have new grants available, little ones will be protected from the filth and fury of the internet thanks to a psychologist recruited from shows only masochists watch on BBC3, while schools previously pumping out illiterate hoodlums will be transformed thanks to wonderfully named programmes such as "Every Child a Reader". On education tuition and tutors were the watchwords, in all their various forms, from one to one tuition to small group tuition through to personal tuition. The promise of financing not from 5 to 16 but from 5 to 21 was impressive, but in a country where class and the improbability/impossibility of rising through the class system seems to becoming even more of an issue, the idea of a class-free society being more than a slogan seems to verge on the delusional.

Which was just where the speech was really lacking. He reeled off the usual statistics of 600,000 children lifted out of poverty, even when we know that 200,000 last year fell back into it. Child benefits and maternity allowances might have doubled and trebled, and 6 million families might be claiming tax credits, but how many of them have either struggled with the scheme or had to pay money back through no fault of their own? He digged at Cameron's discriminatory policy of favouring marriage in the tax system, but the solutions sounded more or less the same, with the wonderful voluntary sector sorting out families and teenagers in trouble just like that. There was so little here directed at those struggling: the minimum wage might be going up, but it still isn't a living wage, while he praised the flexibility of the economy which has become so overbalanced in favour of the bosses that we're now the poor man of Europe when it comes to workers' rights, with a supposed Labour government unwilling to have it any other way.

There was no mention of any proposal to extend the current 28-day detention limit for "terrorist suspects", but that itself seemed to just be the odd one out that didn't get included. We were told about the human rights of those in Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan, while our own civil liberties, chipped away over the Blair years weren't worthy of a mention. It was in line with the punitive, in places almost puritanical bent which Brown spoke of crime and anti-social behaviour in this country; the evil of drug pushers, how "drugs" will never be decriminalised, even after the moral panic on skunk has been well and truly punctured, and the three words on which "strong" communities are founded: discipline, respect and responsibility. If Brown was trying to sound like an old-fashioned headmaster, he succeeded, but the out-of-touch almost naïveté of that same character was more than evident in the laughable "call on the [drinks] industry" to advertise the dangers of teen drinking, which they more than adequately already do with those fucking WKD commercials.

It all sounded very familiar, and as a collection of policy "achievements" and of those to come it was a good summary, but this was meant to be a speech, not a recital or an actual manifesto. The best that can be said for it is that he didn't panic over today's Sun front page and change his mind instantly over the EU treaty, or pander too much to the Paul Dacre constituency which he's steadily built at the Mail over the years. If your outlook is for anything less rigid than unstinting "British values", where the dead end of "meritocracy" reigns supreme and where the status quo appears to be not just the preserve of the Conservatives but now also of Labour, you seem to have come to the wrong party. He might have pledged to stand up for you; but just who are you? Brown seems to have no inclination whatsoever to find out.

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