Gordon Brown is a Prime Minister under pressure. Poor showings in the local elections, a major by-election loss and the lowest poll ratings for the Labour Party since it was led by Michael Foot have combined to make the end of his first year in charge very uncomfortable. Before the relief of the summer recess Brown has to steer two contentious pieces of legislation through Parliament if another round of crisis of confidence in his leadership is to be avoided.
All the more surprising then that he arrivesfor the interview, flanked by his communications chief, in a relaxed frame of mind. He is ready to talk. In this exclusive interview he details his frustration with Parliament and roundly rejects Tony Blair’s personality politics in a surprisingly frank way.
From the start he makes clear his dissatisfaction with Parliament. Although he has an undeniable sense of command, his voice is extremely quiet: “Most people would say that some of the biggest debates happen not in Parliament but outside Parliament in other circles. That is because Parliament debates quite precise and detailed pieces of legislation, but most people think of debates being about the big issues of our time — nuclear weapons, climate change, terrorism, global economic competition.”
He adds: “Usually Parliament spends its time debating clauses, minor clauses of minor sections of minor bills. The availability of the multimedia forms of communication and particularly the internet is creating potential for people to both communicate and organise in a way that’s not happened before.”
However, critics argue otherwise. Parliament just provides a rubber stamp. It is a dangerous situation and there is not enough discussion. We wonder if this is a sign of a Prime Minister who doesn’t particularly enjoy scrutiny. In his defence, supporters would draw attention to the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which describes itself as “a seminal piece of legislation, reshaping the relationship between government, Parliament, the courts, and the people.
Unlike Tony Blair who was famously technophobic when it came to the use of computers, Brown is anxious to explain the importance of modern technology.
“Most people have not yet woken up to the idea of social networking and the means by which people can communicate, organise and change things. This is going to be a key feature of not just every election but every political system in the world,” he insists.
He reminds us it was a ‘coup de text’ which recently brought down the Prime Minister of the Philippines after a million people texted each other to demonstrate against the regime. Burmese monks used blogs to create awareness to the outside world ofthe oppression they were suffering. “Sentries used to stand over fax machines and prevent information getting into individual countries. Now even the most oppressive regimes can’t successfully prevent information getting to people,” he argues.
He suggests people are mobilising in a way we have not seen before and cites the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign as an example. Despite his apparent awareness of the need to engage, to hold a two way dialogue, he alludes to the popular perception that Parliament remains irrelevant to most people. “Most people think Parliament is too confrontational and divisive.Parliament could be a lot better.”
He has said in previous interviews that he is a much more private person than Blair and has tried to make the case for substance over style. In this conversation he goes further than ever before in rejecting the style of his predecessor in what amounts to a thinly veiled attack.
“I think it is character that people look for in the end, not personality,” he says.
Asked to distinguish between the two, he says: “Personality – this is where someone would walk into a room, look around and say – ‘what do people want to hear and how can I express it?’ That’s personality. But someone who walks into a room and says this is actually where I stand, that’s character.”
Considering Brown’s character has been notably called ‘difficult’ by John Prescott and alleged personality traits have been aired repeatedly in the media, it is interesting to hear Brown still promoting the strength of his character. Rather than avoiding the area, he is putting it centre-stage.
As Brown argued earlier, he believes it is big issues, like the economy, crime and the environment that get people in the mood to respond. So how does he intend to engage people in a better way? The introduction of citizen juries, a consultation drive launched in 2007 asking between 12 and 50 people from local communities across the country their views on ‘real issues’, is Brown’s attempt to show he wants to give more power to the British people. “When people have a chance to discuss a big issue I think they do respond,” he says of the drive.
“You do find people feel more energised by a discussion which they aredirectly involved in rather than just a question and answer session and that will be the shape of things to come. So I would say citizens’ juries are working”.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill saw some of the bitterest debates, inside and outside Parliament, in the last year. Brown offered free votes on four of the most contentious areas, hybrid embryos, the IVF father figure rule and saviour siblings. These measures were voted through, although Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’ attempt to reduce the term limit on abortions failed. But the controversial nature of the issues and the high quality and impassioned debate in the Commons highlighted Parliament’s importance at atime when its reputation has been under fierce attack. Regardless of the resultof each vote it was seen as a success for the institution.
If this shows the benefits of keeping the whips away and allowing MPs the independence to lead the debate, does the Prime Minister understand why more free votes could be a good thing? The Bill captured the imagination of the voters, it was seen as a meaningful debate and engaged the media.
He replies: “It’s good for the democratic process. Some of the best debates in the House of Commons have been on these issues. I remember one on capital punishment in the 1980s. It had been abolished in the 1960s but someone had raised it and there were great speeches in that debate. Some of the speeches on the Embryology Bill have been powerful as well.”
If that sounds like the wary answer of a Prime Minister who understands the implications of keeping whips from breathing down people’s necks, then could there be more issues which should be free from party politics? He argues that if a manifesto has been approved by the electorate a government is entitled to expect its MPs to support those measures in Parliament. Nevertheless he reiterates that political parties should always recognise that there will be issues of conscience and these will always be right for a free vote.
Gordon Brown has fought elections since 1979 and must remember the repetitive question, familiar with most grassroot activists: ‘Why should I bother to vote?’ How would he respond to such a question? “If you think politics is just about changing the deck chairs or who’s in who’s out then I regret to say a lot of people will conclude that politics is just about the elites,” he says. The ‘big issues’, as he refers to them, is a phrase we hear repeatedly throughout the interview.
He adds: “We are dealing with big issues with international debt, debt relief, millennium development goals about how we can help people in poverty in Africa and elsewhere. If it’s something about who’s in and who’s out then people are less interested.”
He indicates some frustration at how the big issues are covered inadequately by the media. He says: “If you look at everyday coverage of politics it’s about MPs expenses or salaries, or some human failing”.
The ‘big issues’ - that so concern Brown - are undoubtedly important,they provide context to our everyday lives, but isn’t it crucial to make the message personal?
“People are concerned about what’s happening to them - about fuel prices, gas and electricity bills, mortgages and food prices. You’ve got to explain what you are doing from where people are,” he says.
That answer reveals that Gordon Brown understands it can be hard to link the ‘big issue’ with the day-to-day matters concerning the electorate. This is the charge the opposition parties, particularly the Tories, have been trying to lay at Brown’s doorstep — that he is out of touch. He strongly believes that building a reputation for character is far more important than delivering slick soundbites at every opportunity. He also sees the internet’s possibilities in communicating his thoughts and ideas to the British people.The challenge for the Prime Minister is combining this into a package which will make voters again believe in him.
What is your favourite view?
I look down from where I stay in my constituency and Ican see over the sea and I suppose that’s a great view for me. It’s a greatplace.
Indiana Jones or James Bond?
Indiana Jones: Indiana Jones- but I still quite like James Bond
What music makes you dance?
My son has a book “My Dad”. There is a line which says “My Dad is agreat dancer” - but I’m not! I’m a terrible dancer
What is your favourite dish?
I eat anything to be honest- if someone puts food in front of me I will normally eat it
What is your favourite method of transport?
Walking. It’s the freedom isn’t it? Or running
What was the last film you cried at?
I grew up on That Was the Week That Was. David Frost, Willy Rushtonall those guys.