What is the point of Gordon Brown? His main role appears to be to give a passionate and glottal-stop-spattered speech every couple of years urging the voters to rally to his standard, as we have done so many times before.
In 2014, he popped up to argue in favour of Scotland remaining a part of the United Kingdom. This was highly praised, so much so that many people were almost moved to forgive him for his Prime Minister-ship.
In 2019, he emerged to oppose anti-Semitism within the Labour party. Yet while other Labour figures such Chuka Umunna have left the Labour party, describing it as ‘institutionally racist’, Brown has remained. This week, just ahead of the European elections, he decided the time was right to make another of his passionate ‘moment-of-crisis’ speeches. In this case it was to tell people they should not vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
For Brown and other mainstream Labour figures, it is important not to vote for a party led by a suspected bigot such as Nigel Farage, but rather to vote for a party led by a verifiable bigot, such as Jeremy Corbyn.
But Brown’s attempt at an anti-Farage hit-job this week felt tinny and unpersuasive. In a line that amply demonstrated the best of the former PM’s elan and general humour, he argued that whereas Nigel Farage might want to be remembered as a ‘man of the people’ he would in fact be remembered as a ‘man of the PayPal’. This was in reference to the method people can use to donate to the new party.
Was that a groan that could be heard in the room as Brown trotted out this over-worked and under-funny line? If so, it was not only the natural response to a ‘joke’ of this kind, but also the groan of a dying political gain. Those death throes are worth closer scrutiny.
The whole issue of party funding intermittently wracks British politics – as it does in most other countries. There are, in reality, only a few ways in which political parties can be funded in any democracy.
One is for them to get to taxpayer-funding, as in The Netherlands. There, parties receive stipends depending on the size of their presence in elected office, which forever leads to accusations of entrenched interests.
Alternatively, parties can rely on wealthy individuals – which is one way in which the Conservative and Labour parties (the latter bolstered by Union dues) have been able to operate. Every few years, this leads to a major funding scandal, usually centred around one party or another promising honours and gongs in exchange for cash. It doesn’t do much for the reputation of political parties.
And yet the options to do otherwise are limited. One of the only other ways of drumming up funding is the one which the Brexit Party has relied upon – very large numbers of ordinary people pay a relatively small sum to the party. When Barack Obama was running for office in 2008, there were some exceptionally wealthy individuals who backed his campaign, but they received scant attention compared with all those ordinary people who sent in small sums of money. This method of fund-raising (even though it was exaggerated and spun) looked positive and democratic and was seen to reflect well on Obama.
To date, the Brexit Party has more than 100,000 supporters who have paid at least £25 each. Even if each of those members had only paid the minimum amount needed, that’s two and a half million pounds already banked. But curiously – or not – this it is not seen as the benign or positive force that it was seen as during the Obama race. In the eyes of a significant chunk of the political and media establishment, Obama is on the right side of things and the Brexit Party is clearly – almost axiomatically – on the wrong side of things.
The old parties in Britain would do anything to be able to raise the kind of money that the Brexit Party has summoned from its new members. But the old parties are increasingly tired institutions, running off the dwindling enthusiasm of a dwindling number of supporters. And, so, the politics of innuendo, smear and defamation comes to the fore. And not just innuendo, smear and defamation of political rivals but also of the voters.
Brown also called this week for the Electoral Commission to investigate the Brexit Party for its funding arrangements. The fact that people can make donations under £500 via PayPal means that ‘foreign influence’ could be buying up influence, he suggested.
The same week, Heinz-Christian Strache of the Austrian Freedom Party was exposed and forced to resign after a German media company released footage of the former Vice Chancellor appearing to offer government contracts to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The question of whether the Russian government or Russian assets are able to have some influence in European politics is a live one. And as with all such issues, the more live it is, the more carefully it should be dealt with. Which is precisely not what Brown, or, indeed, a whole generation of recent British and European politicians, have done.
Instead, the idea of Russian funding is weilded – as well as charges of ‘populism’ – as a way of avoiding the real reason the voters keep on voting ‘the wrong way’. It is a tool used by Brown and his political generation to delay their reckoning a little while longer.
If more than 100,000 people join a new political party within a matter of weeks – a political party that looks set to do exceptionally well at the EU elections – it should be the case that those in power (and those out of power but in a situation to influence things) try to make peace with the public. Such a movement didn’t come from nowhere. It is a deep insult to the intelligence of the general public to pretend that it did.
We all know why the Brexit Party has come to prominence: three years ago the British public voted to leave the European Union and three years later are asked to go to the polls again to vote in European Parliament elections.
Gordon Brown and his cohort don’t have to face up to the fact that the voters don’t agree with them. But for the health of the democracy as a whole it would be an enormous help if he and others did try to come to an understanding of the following.
None of this is happening because of Cambridge Analytica. It isn’t happening because of Russian interference. And it isn’t happening because the general public have been bewitched by smooth-talking and deceitful populists. The nightmare that the Brexit Party presents to the political mainstream has only come about because that political mainstream has failed.
It failed in the one task that the voters asked them to achieve in 2016. It is time the public sent the message loud and clear to that political class. It isn’t us. It isn’t Russia. It’s you.