“We are fighting to save tax credits”; seven words that sum up everything that has gone wrong for Gordon Brown in both this election and his premiership. I first noticed this, or a variation of it, in a radio news clip on Friday night; I then heard it again on Saturday and today. I’m fairly sure he’s said it in the debates but for some reason it only struck me this weekend.
You don’t fight for tax credits – you fight for hard-working families, you fight for the less privileged. Tax credits aren’t something you fight for, they are a mechanism. Only Mr Brown can elevate them into something worth fighting for in their own right. Tony Blair would never have made such a basic mistake.
One imagines a Brown variation on Winston Churchill: “We shall fight them to maintain a consistent quality of sand on the beaches, especially near the volleyball nets; we shall fight them on the landing grounds where they might seek to park in the bays otherwise reserved for the disabled and mothers with young children”.
This is emblematic of his disconnection from voters. Matthew Tayor, the FT’s expert panelist and former head of policy for Tony Blair, summed it up brilliantly last week when he observed that historians would ask why Labour went into the election “with somebody who according to all the evidence, could not communicate with voters”.
Mr Brown and his team created tax credits. There’s nothing wrong with the policy. Many would contend it has much to commend it. But you don’t fight for it in itself. You fight for what it achieves.
Watching Mr Brown over the last few days reminded me of a chancellors’ debate I watched between him and Kenneth Clarke (and the Lib Dem Malcolm Bruce) during the 1997 election. Mr Brown was at his most effective; he was not engaging in arguments with Mr Clarke but talking directly to voters, while the Conservative attempted to argue the case and explain the issues. I can’t remember who won on substance but I recall thinking Mr Brown won hands down in terms of winning over voters. More than a decade later it is Mr Brown who is spending more time defending his own record than winning new arguments.