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Opinion

Gordon Brown was a serious politician who improved people’s lives. The UK needs someone of his calibre now

18 May 2024 8 minute read
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Photo Danny Lawson, PA Wire

Martin Shipton

A video clip of a TV interview with Gordon Brown brought home to me how steeply the quality of political leadership at Westminster has declined in the last 15 years.

Mr Brown – who to his credit remains unencumbered with a knighthood, let alone a peerage – was speaking with eloquence about a subject he cares passionately about and which gets far too little attention: child poverty.

As a former Chancellor with 10 years experience, he has the detailed knowledge and gravitas to present a compelling case for a wholesale reform of the benefits system. He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “We’ve got probably the highest levels of poverty in living memory amongst children, and these figures have risen dramatically over the last few years, so we’ve now got 4.3 million children who are officially in poverty.

“Three million children will be missing meals at some point during the course of this month; one million children last night and tonight will be sleeping without a bed of their own. This is a level of destitution for families that we haven’t seen for many, many years.”

‘Urgent attention’

Speaking of his own childhood in Fife, Scotland, Mr Brown said: “I grew up in a mining and textile town. We saw a great deal of poverty when I was growing up, and we’re back to these kind of levels. And it really is something that demands urgent attention.

“Children ill-clad and hungry; families having to choose between heating, eating and keeping clean; mothers ashamed because they’re having to queue up at food banks to get food for their children, to make ends meet. These are the things that are now happening that should not be happening in 2024.”

Describing the impact such conditions are having on children and families in his home area, Mr Brown said: “We’re running a multi-bank, which is a food bank, clothes bank, furnishings bank, toiletries bank, baby bank all rolled into one.

“Last winter people were desperate for bedding to keep warm. They couldn’t afford to heat their homes and they were simply trying to heat themselves. As we move into the summer months, people cannot afford or consider soap and shampoo and toothpaste, as a luxury item – and that’s why the biggest hospital admissions for children between five and nine is for dental decay. And that’s three and a half times higher in the poorer communities than in the richer communities.

“So we’re seeing austerity’s children – children born in the last 15 years, children growing up who have probably never known what it is to be anything other than poor. They don’t have the clothes, they don’t have the shelter that is of high quality, and they don’t get the nutrition that they need. We have to do something about it.

“It is the biggest social problem we face. It is dividing our society and it’s going to get worse, because the government has in the last few weeks given up on all the emergency help it was giving for heating. It’s going to abolish the Housing Support Fund, which is the last line of defence against destitution, and we have charities now advertising for help because they anticipate summer hunger for children who are out of school without school meals and nothing in the lunchtime break.”

Low pay

He went on to make the point that most of the poor families affected involve people who are in work but on low pay, with 70% of children in poverty in families where somebody is working. Asked what specifically needs to happen, Mr Brown said up to £2bn could be saved by ending interest payments to commercial banks when the Bank of England holds a fraction of their reserves.

He added: “The Household Support Fund which is £500m should be continued not abolished and many charities are calling for that. At the same time I do think that a Children’s Fund should be created – and it could be with foundations and charities as well as businesses as well as with local and national government. We need to revive projects like SureStart because we proved until 2010 [when Labour lost power] that SureStart was actually increasing educational performance, reducing demand for healthcare and was actually paying for itself and was cost effective. So all the things I’m proposing could be achieved within the fiscal rules that both political parties have set down.”

Mr Brown said a root and branch review was needed of welfare payments including the two-child limit on child benefit, bedroom tax and benefit caps. As he put it, “You’ve got to look at every aspect of Universal Credit that has gone wrong.”

Sidestepped

At the end of the interview the former Prime Minister neatly sidestepped a question about the UK Government’s wish to send refugees to Rwanda, making the point that it was for MPs in the House of Commons to argue about that. He would stick to considering how to tackle child poverty.

It was refreshing to hear a former top rank politician speak seriously about a serious subject – something that is rarely heard these days. Instead we have politicians at Westminster who score points off each other by seeing which of them can best emulate the most populist, least enlightened views expressed in a right wing newspaper or website.

This can, perhaps, be expected of the Conservatives, whose One Nation Tory wing has virtually entirely gone AWOL. What’s sadder is that Labour under Starmer is so desperate not to offend bigoted reactionaries who voted Tory in Red Wall seats at the last general election that well-thought-through positions like that adopted by Gordon Brown on child poverty are seen as too radical and insufficiently simplistic for the narrow spectrum of target voters to grasp.

The endgame for such lack of vision could easily lead to the destruction of our democracy. There is already a huge amount of cynicism about the ability – or even desire – of politicians to change things for the better.

We’ve had a decade and a half of UK Government ministers telling us that we have to put up with austerity indefinitely, with a deterioration in the quality and existence of public services and cuts to our standard of living. It took a pandemic to provide some of us with an enforced respite from the continuing decline. For others it led to misery, with the destruction of lives and livelihoods.

Appease racists

The tone for contemporary political discourse is set by the government via its policy and legislative proposals. Petty-minded Bills designed to appease racists, like the move to send refugees to Rwanda, have changed the dominant narrative into one where politicians from rival parties try to outdo each other in appearing as mean-minded as possible, for fear of incurring the wrath of the Daily Mail.

The victory of Starmer’s Labour at the coming general election is inevitable, given the level of hostility towards the Conservatives, under whose long reign living standards have declined. Equally inevitably, the popularity of the incoming Labour government is destined to fall rapidly, because the party is too busy watering down its programme to create an inspiring vision or have much impact. The most likely beneficiary of the ensuing disillusionment will be the far right.

For the three years that Gordon Brown was Prime Minister, he was seen by many as dour and uninspiring. Yet as Chancellor he had helped millions of low paid workers by bringing in the legal minimum wage for the first time and introducing tax credits. He didn’t have the superficial charm of Tony Blair or, for that matter, the affected buffoonery of Boris Johnson that many later found so appealing.

But listen to the eight minutes and 45 seconds of his TV interview on child poverty and, like me, you’re likely to be struck by what we have lost.


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adrian savill
adrian savill
1 month ago

Another excellent piece

Evan Aled Bayton
Evan Aled Bayton
1 month ago

Mr Brown is as much to blame as anyone for the cause of child poverty which arises out of the bankrupt state his administration left the UK in which enabled the Coalition and then the Tories to inflict austerity. The poverty of working families is the cause of child poverty and he is ultimately to blame for that. An end to boom and bust was his boast – yes – indefinite bust.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
30 days ago

Seriously? The UK was far from ‘bankrupt’ (indeed, a country with its own currency cannot go bankrupt) and if anything the measures Brown had put in place were beginning to improve the financial situation the UK found itself in, and had Labour won that election, there would have been no false, ideologically driven austerity, the sole purpose of which was to create a scenario to allow wholesale transfers of wealth from the public sector to the private. I have no doubt that had Labour, and Brown prevailed in that election we would have seen equally epic amounts of quantitive easing,… Read more »

Morfudd ap Haul
Morfudd ap Haul
30 days ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

He gave our gold away. You know Brown’s bottom.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

I thought I’d be good at it, after all I went to Eton…

I’m going to make this country a hostile place

I’m destined to be World King…

I’m barking mad God knows why anyone should listen to me…

I’m here to take from the poor and give to the rich…

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
30 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

All your quotes relate to boris johnson.

Why not put something positive relating to the article instead?

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
30 days ago
Reply to  Richard Davies

No they don’t, they relate to the Five Prime Ministers of the Apocalypse, Fat Shanks included…

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
30 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

I’ve re-read them (slowly) and I realise now. I take back my previous comment.

Valerie Matthews
Valerie Matthews
1 month ago

This Country seems to always allow the Media to belittle and disparage Decent honest men like Gordon and Jeremy.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
30 days ago

Decent honest politicians like Gordon and Jeremy are unfortunately a rare phenomenon, especially in uk!

Johnny Gamble
Johnny Gamble
30 days ago
Reply to  Richard Davies

You can’t compare Brown to Corbyn.Brown just carried on from where Blair left off.
Corbyn opposed the Iraq war whereas Brown approved of it.
When Brown became PM he vehemently opposed a windfall tax on giant energy companies.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
30 days ago
Reply to  Johnny Gamble

I never said they were the same, they are both decent for different reasons.

Jeremy is obviously better than Gordon in many ways and I wanted Jeremy to be prime minister in 2017 & 2019. Gordon is better than blair but blair is better than what keir will be and any labour is (sometimes only just) better than any tory!

richard
richard
30 days ago

Gordon Brown was the Ted Heath of his day. Enough said.

Richard E
Richard E
30 days ago

Gordons main place in history will be as the resident of Number 11 Downing Street….by the time he moved next door the game was up !

Frank
Frank
30 days ago

Didn’t he sell our gold reserves for a pittance and almost left Britain potless? I wonder who he sold the gold to? Probably his mates.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
30 days ago

Remind me; who signed off on our part in the Iraq War and how many lives did that save?…

Jim Davies
Jim Davies
30 days ago

I thoroughly agree with all of this.

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