The Labour Soap Opera

London is a place where Thomas Frank's famous book bears the title What's the Matter with America?, thus extending the indictment to the whole nation, and where a small American child is required to affirm that she hates George W. Bush before she can join English tykes on the jungle gym. Even so, the principal obsession is no longer the subservience of Tony Blair to Bush, but a much older soap opera, now entering its dreary tenth season: Blair versus Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer and his long-anticipated successor as leader of the Labour Party and, presumptively, prime minister.

Blair versus Brown descended into real ugliness during my visit there in April, with Blair's partisans (called “madmen” by Brown's) accusing Brown of subtly trying to sabotage Labour's chances in local elections May 4, and Brown's partisans suggesting that Blair was again reneging on “The Deal” made when both men were young -- that Blair would go first, lead “New Labour” to victory, and eventually yield power to Brown. Now, alternative successors are being mentioned for the first time.

The Blair-Brown deal had long interested me -- as a political success story. The pairing, voluntary or not, seemed to solve two of the problems of democratic governance: the problem of diversity of viewpoints in a political party, and the problem of succession, challenges that neither major U.S. party has handled well recently. Brown and Blair unapologetically represented different viewpoints. Brown is more rooted in the traditional Labour Party vision of social democracy, and Blair more of a Clintonesque triangulator. Both have been great innovators in social policy; but Brown's innovations have sought to reduce inequality -- such as “baby bonds,” a stake of £250 to £500 for every child born in the U.K. -- whereas Blair is more attracted to individualistic, market-based social policies. Accepting these distinctions, Blair and Brown were able to show two faces to the voters: traditional Labour voters could wait patiently for Brown while tolerating Blair, while the more upwardly mobile voters and disaffected Tories appreciated Blair's beyond-left-and-right pitch.

As American Democrats and progressives ponder the question, “What do
we stand for?” -- always with the unipolar Republicans as a distracting role model -- let us be reminded that for a decade in the U.K., Labour has successfully managed to stand for more than one thing. And that's appropriate, as any political party in the Anglo-American winner-take-all system must represent a broad, diverse coalition.

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To offer both change and more of the same is a rare achievement in politics. It was what was needed at the end of the eight Clinton years, and yet, Vice President Al Gore seemingly had no freedom to strike that pose. Either he would break with Clinton or stick with him. Similarly, even Senator John McCain, as I pointed out last month, doesn't seem to have any option as a presidential candidate except to present himself as a loyal clone of the unpopular incumbent. But Brown's subtle differences with Blair are already well known, his continued loyalty in some ways more notable for those differences.

I've made the case that the Blair-Brown dyad should be seen as a positive thing to a number of knowledgeable Brits aligned with neither faction, and the response has generally been that that might have been true up until two years ago. But now it's all gone too far. Now it's personal.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party may have at last found in David Cameron its own Blair, a leader with more charisma and political adeptness than the balding young fogies Blair trounced in 2001 and 2004, and one who understands the new demographics of Great Britain.

It would be disappointing if Brown never has the chance to show what he can do with the full reins of power, for it is he who offers the ideal model for U.S. progressives: an understanding that economic growth is a necessary condition but that government must actively intervene to ensure that prosperity is broadly shared. The U.K. has experienced the longest period of sustained prosperity in its modern history, yet unlike the United States and most other western economies, since 2000 -- thanks to fair tax and social policies income -- inequality declined, and the country made progress on Labour's promise to abolish child poverty. That achievement is Brown's, and proves that the U.S. model of radically increasing inequality is not inevitable. If Blair and Brown can cancel the soap opera before it destroys their careers, perhaps -- returning the favor by which Clinton helped Blair devise the triangulations of New Labour -- Brown as prime minister can help Americans see the path to a new and vigorous progressivism, in which the benefits of economic growth are broadly shared.

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