April 12, 2010 8:40 pm

Brown stays close to Blairite path

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Gordon Brown launched Labour’s manifesto on Monday in the sun-drenched atrium of a new NHS hospital, against a computer-generated backdrop of a cornfield swaying in a summer breeze. “We are in the future business,” declared the prime minister.

Mr Brown knows that an incumbent government of 13 years standing has to work hard to capture the future, especially when the bleak state of the public finances promises five years of pain and spending cuts.

Labour’s manifesto is a 10-chapter account of what more the government could do to help business and voters; Mr Brown ducked the chance to explain what a cash-strapped state might have to give up.

But he delivered a strong performance, cheered on a by a partisan audience in Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth hospital who not only supported the prime minister but booed certain journalists for asking questions.

The manifesto, entitled “A Future Fair for All”, is a curious hybrid of 1990s Blairism and a new brand of state-oriented Labour thinking, reflecting the party’s rediscovered belief in government intervention after the financial crisis.

Lord Mandelson, campaign chief, called the message “Blair plus” although he will have been delighted to hear Mr Brown referring to “New Labour” – the concept the prime minister helped to develop, but later seemed to repudiate.

Among the totemic New Labour promises is a commitment not to increase any of the current rates of income tax, although Labour promised the same in 2005 and later went on to introduce a new 50p top rate. “I did not want to raise the top rate of tax,” Mr Brown said, pleading extraordinary circumstances as a defence. But Labour has not ruled out raising national insurance rates or VAT rates.

Ed Miliband, charged with writing the manifesto, managed to scale back many of the trade union demands that might have marked a decisive breach with the party’s Blairite past, including a proposed crackdown on executive pay. His effort also blocked union requests to extend paid maternity leave for a year and for an unfunded pledge for universal free school meals.

The unions were offered some sops, including measures to impede hostile takeovers and warm words on the benefits of mutuality: the manifesto said the government favoured turning state-run Northern Rock into a mutual, before admitting it would probably be sold to the highest bidder.

Postal workers would have been relieved to see no mention of plans to part-privatise Royal Mail, although Lord Mandelson said Labour might yet return to the subject if a “strategic partner” could be found.

The manifesto continues to drive forward the Blairite agenda of public service reform, although with less reliance on the private sector to deliver the improvements, and a focus instead on public “entitlements” to certain levels of state provision.

Meanwhile, Lord Mandelson has learned a lot from the financial crisis and from watching the way that a more interventionist France survived the crash in relatively good health.

Labour’s rescue of Northern Rock, Lloyds and RBS has emboldened it to believe the state can be a benign actor in the economy. Lord Mandelson claims the Tory answer is for the state to withdraw, opening up a real political dividing line.

Gordon Brown spoke of “a Britain where an active government backs British business”, whether through building new infrastructure or through regional development agencies.

Apart from a section on political reform – including a proposal for a reformed Commons and Lords – Labour’s strategists admit the document is not exactly “radical”. After 13 years in power, Gordon Brown was clearly in no mood to turn his back on Labour’s past and strike out in a completely new direction.

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