Lesley Riddoch: Gordon Brown doesn’t get it

Gordon Brown’s speech shows how little he understands about Corbyn’s rise, says Lesley Riddoch

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Royal Festival Hall in London before his speech. Picture: PA

SO Gordon Brown has marked the (almost) anniversary of his Vow with another speech that’s left the viewing thousands divided over its manner and purpose. Yesterday afternoon, the former Labour leader paced his Southbank venue like a caged lion/man with a step counting target. The engrossed audience listened intently/finally remembered to applaud after 30 long minutes of rambling monologue. Brown spoke with passion/abruptly marched off at the end without questions, discussion or conversational exchange.

Eventually the straight-talking Scot sent an explanatory tweet to clarify the purpose of his heavily anticipated/much mocked foray into the Labour leadership contest.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

“Politics has to be more than the art of the possible. It is making the desirable possible.”

Meaning precisely what?

Evidently, everyone inside the London bubble had been primed to understand that whatever Brown said should be construed as an attack on Jeremy Corbyn – and those insiders then briefed baffled viewers lest we got waylaid by Brown’s supporting cast of name-dropped stars, which included Amy Winehouse, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and Elton John. This generous act of interpretation/inexplicable collusion by press and broadcasters, made it possible for the clunking fist to hint at rather than hammer out his message. That quietly spoken, earnest, left wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn is bad news and cannot be trusted. That his principles may sound admirable but will keep Labour in permanent opposition. That his fondness for the IRA, Hezbollah, Hamas and Putin will wreck British foreign policy and the objective of the entire Labour movement which is, in the words of the late John Smith, to serve in government not in protest.

Never mind that Brown criticised the Lib Dems for choosing a share in grubby government over lofty but powerless opposition. Never mind that Nelson Mandela was in protest for most of his life, refusing to serve in any government save the one elected by all South Africans. Never mind that Brown’s impassioned treatise about the importance of hope neatly encapsulates the success of the Corbyn campaign. Never mind that Yes voters already know being powerless is worse than being heartbroken. Never mind that the election of 56 SNP MPs on 7 May might be an eloquent comment on the success of Brown’s “near federalism Vow” in the eyes of most Scots. Never mind that Jeremy Corbyn is considered both the least and most electable of the four candidates by the general public.

Never mind any of that, because the ritual of old style politics demands silence while tablets of stone are handed down from on high. And strangely – after loving to hate him as Prime Minister – no source of authority now sits higher in the estimation of the press than Gordon Brown. But what impact will Brown’s intervention have on Labour party members?

Has Corbyn’ support peaked too early? Will the son of Project Fear currently stalking Corbyn succeed in sowing doubts about his electability, economic competence and international credibility?

Actually, Corbyn’s opinion poll lead is less like that single, wobbly Yes poll a week before the indyref and a lot more like the SNP’s sustained lead in Scotland before May’s General Election. Admittedly, all the press have to go on are internal Labour polls, but these have put Corbyn in front for weeks. The veteran left winger is also likely to be the main beneficiary of the bargain £3 membership drive that saw Labour membership surge to a whopping 610,753 last week (three times larger than its size at the General Election). Why join a party that seemed static and unelectable unless there’s a scent of real change in the air?

And there is.

If Corbyn does manage to outrun Project Fear and win the Labour leadership election in September, his victory will prompt a massive, necessary and long overdue re-alignment of English politics – and will owe a great deal to the SNP’s indyref boldness and post indyref vigour.

The SNP’s refusal to play by Westminster club rules has emboldened and inspired Labour activists on both sides of the Border – even if they are loath to admit it. The 56 have dutifully attended almost every vote team-handed – contrasting their perky, can-do, can-oppose approach with the stale air of surrender that has surrounded Labour since their shameful decision to abstain on Conservative cuts to the welfare budget. High profile UK Government u-turns on fox-hunting, scrapping the Human Rights Act and English votes for English Laws showed the SNP’s terrier-like tactics could pay off, and oft-viewed maiden speeches have created a new straight-talking, comprehensible but powerful parliamentary register.

After months of English voters asking to join the SNP, it was only a matter of time before a viable English alternative emerged. And with his knife-edge admission to the Labour leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn has become the beneficiary of SNP-generated optimism about the possibility of radical parliamentary change.

Of course the Labour Party may split at UK level – whoever wins. But that’s no bad thing.

Trapped within a first past the post system Labour opted not to dismantle, the party cannot hope to outpoll the Tories alone. It can hope to work the way Social Democrats do all over Europe – making alliances and coalitions with fellow travellers. And though Corbyn’s position on Scottish Home Rule is disappointingly weak, he agrees with the SNP and Plaid on almost every other important policy position – from austerity and immigration to Trident and public ownership.

His refusal to engage in negative campaigning also draws him closer to the SNP than to the powerful but bullying voices inside his own party. A smaller but more focused Labour Party may take time to rebuild across the UK but that may be better than aimless stagnation. It will immediately have a UK leadership that chimes with Scottish political culture, a bonus threatened only by Scottish Labour – as instinctively cautious and establishment oriented as the SNP manages to be risk-taking and rebellious, even in office.

But if a Corbyn-led Labour and the SNP 56 can agree to differ on independence and vote together at Westminster, it will make Scottish Labour’s old habit of “opposition for the sake of it” hard to maintain in Holyrood.

And the “Corbyn dividend” might even produce an opposition as vigorous and adventurous as our new First Minister. In short, good news all round.