Monday, 4 May 2009

Political Capital

"Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason."
Unknown Author

It's been a week Gordon Brown would like to forget. Hazel Blears has questioned his leadership over the weekend, stating the party needs to connect with people and show a more 'human' side. A humiliating mid-week defeat in the commons over the Gurkha's gave his opponents an opportune moment to pose in front of a just cause. With this defeat displaying dissent within the party ranks, Brown didn't risk carrying forward the recent politicians expenses bill instead backing down on these proposals. On his travels he managed to get a bashing from the Poles and the Chileans, regarding government spending restraint and building up money during the good years. Those 'Tory' Boom and Bust remarks are also coming back to haunt him as unemployment climbs, entailing hardship worse than when Gordon as a young backbench MP lamented the government on the lack of jobs. Contrast this with Obama in the US, and we can see quite different fortunes. Here Barack Obama can do no wrong. The recent G20 meeting exemplified this as the worlds leaders clambered to be seen with the charismatic leader. Political Capital - the credibility and perceived vision of a person - is all important in the world of politics.

It wasn't always like this for Gordon Brown. When he became the unelected Prime Minister, Labour did gain in popularity as Tony Blair's political capital had slowly ebbed away. As the financial events have evolved, fortunes have changed and since Brown was involved in the economic decisions of the past decade it has consequently meant his creditability with the public is in many ways non-existent. Similar to Jim Callaghan thirty years ago, both were former chancellors who became prime minister, both became the tallest PM in each of their eras and both inherited a domestic economy in turmoil, in part their own doing. A successful politician can obtain their capital in two ways, by circumstantial chance, or by genuine integrity.

Nelson Mandela is an iconic figure, a universal political and diplomatic celebrity. People with no interest in politics instantly recognise him. He is a classic example of political capital that he built up by himself for his integrity and devotion for the apartheid cause. As the leader of the militant wing of the ANC, Spear of a Nation, Mandela was involved in various guerrilla warfare operations, sabotaging many government installations (he was influenced by the readings of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong). It was on these acts of sabotage he was charged, which he admitted to and was sentenced to serve time on robben island. During this he was offered various offers to renounce the armed struggles of the anti-apartheid movement in exchange for his freedom, all of which he declined. These half measures would not be enough as he sought complete equality. With International apartheid economic sanctions further crippling the South African economy along with growing unrest, secret talks were opened with Mandela and the National Party Government to allow free democratic elections for all.

There would not be many political leaders who would endure the above, and many would have resentment towards the current government, but not Mandela. He realised South Africa needed the whites, as they were the educated ones who would be required for the new knowledge economy. He also realised that fiscal and government restraint were the solutions towards wealth - not increased government, or generous welfare programs for the Black public who would be his main supporters.

It was these tough decisions that Mandela was prepared to make, at the risk of unpopularity. Yet his political capital shone through. The ANC were voted in, with large sections of the White population voting for him as they realised change was needed. The recent South African elections still show how much mass appeal Mandela has, as the ANC wheeled him out in order to gain further support for a new generation of ANC leaders, whose capital is no where near as large. Nelson Mandela is a classic example of political capital built through integrity, principles and self sacrifice.

There is another type of political capital, that of just being plain lucky. Tony Blair gained the leadership of the Labour party back in 1994. A recession, a government that had been in power for nearly two decades which was mired in scandal after scandal, Blair was the right guy in the right place. An opportunist, who as Home Secretary copied his Tory counterpart, tough on crime tough on the causes of crime, and continued the imitation of the opposition when he led the party. The 1997 election proved to be a landslide. For the next 10 years Blair would be at the helm as everything fell into place. The rise of Asia as a low cost labor destination, the explosion of telecommunications that enabled further off shoring of office operations to such destinations. Record low Oil prices, which allowed the industrialised countries of the west to further grow along with Asia. The peaking production of North Sea Oil and Gas providing a nice tax stream for the Treasury along with the distortion the pounds value and the balance of payments. The British population coming into the prime of their working age, as many of the boomers were in their 30's, 40's and 50's, putting institutions such as education and the NHS under less fiscal pressures. The ending of 'The Troubles' as Northern Ireland looked for peace after a generation of conflict who had just had enough. Thatchers reforms during the eighties that got rid of industries that Britain had become uncompetitive in and moving into other jobs. The rise of London as a giant hedge fund that created wealth out of nothing, or so it would seem at the time. The accession of Eastern European nations such as Poland into the EU provided limitless cheap low and high skilled labor, doing jobs British people didn't want to do or couldn't do.

All of this provided Tony Blair with the perfect political platform, that gave him capital and leverage that he could do as he pleased, with little dissent. Tony Blair told middle England what they wanted to hear. He promised social justice with no intention of raising income taxes, so middle England could feel better about themselves rather than the guilt they had felt under Thatcher. He could give them everything, when in reality he did nothing. All the events detailed above did the real work. Blair would later admit as much.

So can Brown survive and can he regain his political capital? Once politicians begin to lose their political capital it becomes very hard to recapture it. Ted Heath's clashes with the Miners which resulted in the three day week, or Anthony Eden's moment with the Suez crisis, each lost them vital political capital and they never regained it back. There is only one way Brown and Labour can regain political capital. If the opposition implodes, but this seems highly unlikely. The other is a leadership challenge, to try and get some fresh capital back. There has been discussions of this for a while and I feel we are still too early from the general election. The local elections to be held in June will provide valuable insight into the immediate damage that has been inflicted. A devastating defeat and members of the party may get restless, with a leadership challenge likely. Political capital, either from timing or integrity, is vital in politics. Neither of which Gordon Brown has.

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