Gordon Brown targets the political centre

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has once again targeted the political centre as he gave his first speech as Prime Minister to the Labour Party conference on Monday. Mr Brown gave the impression that he has risen above partisan politics and he did not criticise (or even mention) the Conservative Party once, in an obvious attempt to woo Tory voters.

Mr Brown has in fact surprised some observers since he replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Yes, he has changed the style of government, with less emphasis on glitz and spin; he carried out a major Cabinet reshuffle; he is keen to give more powers to the House of Commons; and he has acknowledged that there exist key policy areas such as health and education where much work still needs to be done.

However, what Mr Brown has not done is change course or turn to the left as some people thought he would. He has remained on the same centrist course as Mr Blair, which makes a victory at the general election more possible.

Mr Brown's Downing Street invitation to Margaret Thatcher, where the two had tea together, was a master coup by the Prime Minister, which must has pleased many traditional Conservative voters. A couple of days before, Mr Brown said that like Mrs Thatcher he was also a "conviction politician" who knew when change was needed. So once again, Mr Brown is trying to portray himself as the right man at the right time without any emphasis on partisan politics, and so far this tactic seems to have worked. The Labour Party has not only reversed its decline in the opinion polls but is also leading the Conservative Party by a comfortable majority. Mr Brown is not said to be considering calling a snap election.

Labour's poll rating has surely been helped by the party's apparent unity. Voters, especially in Britain, do not like divided parties, which explains why Labour fared so badly in the 1980s and early 1990s, and likewise why the Conservatives have done so poorly since 1997. The cracks in Tony Blair's third government were largely due to infighting between the Blairites and the Brownites - which was not appreciated by voters - and which was reflected in the opinion polls. However, at least for now, the party seems as united as ever, and this was clearly evident at last week's party conference. Furthermore, Mr Brown has appointed many Blairites to his Cabinet, such as Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and this, of course, is the best way to maintain party unity, besides making use of all the talent available.

Although the Prime Minister did not have an easy three months since he entered Downing Street, many feel that he did a good job in dealing with a number of crises that cropped up, namely the attempted terror attacks in London and Glasgow, floods, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and a run on a bank. The general view is that Mr Brown acted swiftly in a calm manner and many voters will surely appreciate this.

Mr Brown gave a good speech at his party conference, one that was full of noble goals and aspirations which most people could hardly disagree with. He spoke about unlocking all the talents of all the people, providing improved personalised public services - especially in health and education, eliminating child poverty, making housing affordable, planning a carbon-free future and he promised that Britain's economy would continue to do well in the world.

Of course, voters will want to know just how Mr Brown intends to finance his vision of a new Britain. Many of the Prime Minister's proposals cost a lot of money. Will he raise taxes to achieve his goals and thus risk losing the potential support of traditional Conservative voters? Or will he involve the private sector more in health and education and risk alienating his party's traditional wing? This is what Mr Blair did, and in doing so he distanced himself further from Labour's left-wing faction.

Mr Brown will have to arrive at a compromise which will do two things: keep his party together and get the support of centrist voters. Mr Blair managed to do just that for most of his terms in office, which is why he won three successive general elections. The Prime Minister will have to try and do the same. So far he seems to be on the right track, but he has more explaining to do.

At the party conference Gordon Brown didn't dedicate much of his speech to either European or foreign policy. He was forceful on Zimbabwe and Burma, which is fine, but was vague on both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the European Union. Foreign policy might not win elections, but the war in Iraq, for example, is very unpopular in Britain and cost the Labour Party a lot of support at the last general election.

So Mr Brown owes voters a clear view on how the war is progressing in Iraq, and how the situation in Afghanistan can be improved. Mr Brown should also have the courage to place Britain firmly at the centre of the European Union, just as Mr Blair did. After all, the issue of Europe is one area which distinguishes the Labour and Conservative parties from each other.


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