Gordon Brown: Support ‘swelling’ for Labour under Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership

Gordon Brown, the last Labour prime minister, said he believes there is more momentum behind the party than in the run up to Sir Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory.

Mr Brown said the public are backing Labour because the party is offering “real change” and not the “cosmetic change” he says lies behind the Tories’ levelling-up plans.

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The former Labour leader gave his assessment after launching his report calling for democratic overhaul of the UK, including the abolition of the unelected House of Lords.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (right) and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown greet each other during a Labour Party press conference at Nexus, University of Leeds, in Yorkshire, to launch a report on constitutional change and political reform that would spread power, wealth and opportunity across the UK. Picture date: Monday December 5, 2022.

Travelling on a packed train from Leeds to Edinburgh between stops on their launch, Mr Brown said public hunger for reform was greater than ahead of Sir Tony’s defeat of John Major’s Conservatives.

He told the PA news agency during a joint interview with Sir Keir while sitting in first class that “more so than in 1997, people want change”.

“I was around obviously, in the many years from the 1980s to 1997 parliament and I saw the rising demand for change,” the former chancellor said.

“The worry about the decline in public standards, which happened when we had all these sleaze allegations, the failure of the economy after ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism) and people’s desire for change, but I think it’s a more sweeping and more noticeable desire, and it’s in every part of the country.

“In 1997, we had a desire for devolution in Scotland, then in Wales, but now you see the desire for local power in Manchester, in Liverpool, in Newcastle but not just in the cities.”

Asked if that correlates with momentum behind Labour, he said: “I think so, because Labour is offering real change and not cosmetic change.

“Levelling-up seems to me to be cosmetic change. Because if you can move people up from the bottom rung, to the second bottom rung, you can say you’ve succeeded. What we want is equal opportunity for every part of the country. And that’s a big change.”

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Mr Brown’s losing election manifesto in 2010 contained a pledge to have an elected second chamber to replace the Lords.

But Sir Keir, along with his predecessor, said this is now not necessary for their sweeping reforms, which are out for consultation.

“Look, we will go into the election setting out in clear terms what the mission is for the next Labour government,” he told PA.

“If we are elected to government then we have the mandate to carry out those missions.”

Sir Keir’s eventual legislation to reform the Lords will need legislation to be approved by the very peers who would be turfed out of Parliament by the changes.

He appeared to concede that some compromise on the plans published on Monday could be required.

“You can’t bring in this level, this scale of change, without consulting with people that are going to work with us in this transfer of power,” Sir Keir said.

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There have been calls in the past for a new upper chamber to be moved out of London to reduce Westminster’s overwhelming grip on power.

But Sir Keir did not indicate support for such a move, saying: “The House of Lords is an important bit, but a bit of a massively wider review of what we will do.

“I want the effects of this report to be felt in every single place across the UK.

“True it is, the report doesn’t say where the location of a second chamber should be, but there’s no denying I want power to be exercised to be as close to people as possible.”

Riding high in the polls against a slumping Tory party, Labour will want to win support from the SNP as they seek to use the next election as a de-facto independence referendum.

Sir Keir said the proposed package of strengthened devolution would give him a positive case to make for a “stronger Scotland within a United Kingdom”.

“We are not arguing for the status quo against change. We’re saying change versus change but change within the UK rather than change outside the UK,” he said.

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The former Remain backer also hopes the reforms will be a positive message to send to Brexit voters who were voting against democratic power being concentrated elsewhere.

Sir Keir said the plans to devolve funding around the nation are “certainly not” a “sticking plaster” to the dent to growth economists say has been dealt by leaving the EU’s single market.

He has not ruled out there ever being a case for rejoining the arrangement with the UK’s biggest trading partner, but says he is focused on getting a “better Brexit” now.

“We’ve left the EU, that means we’ve left the single market, and there’s no case for rejoining,” he said.

Instead he said he wants to improve elements of the trade deal with the EU signed by former PM Boris Johnson to reduce trade barriers and resolve the issues of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Labour would aim to abolish the “indefensible” House of Lords “as quickly as possible”, ideally within its first term, Sir Keir Starmer also confirmed today.

“In all of the discussions I’m having with international leaders and businesses, nobody is talking about rejoining the single market,” he said.

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“Everybody is talking about a better relationship, everyone wants a better trading relationship. And that’s what the Labour party will deliver.”