Gordon Brown strives to rescue Labour from the Pied Piper of North Islington

If news is supposed to be what no one expects to happen, then Gordon Brown may have been wasting his time in London on Sunday.

“Unelectable ex-PM slams unelectable Corbyn crusade” was not likely to come as a complete surprise to the Pied Piper of Islington North and his people’s army when they watched the capitalist TV news. Even without the pre-briefing.

Outside the Royal Festival Hall, itself a memorial to Labour’s heroic 1945-51 government, August crowds were milling with cheerful indifference in the hybrid mixed economy that the South Bank has since become - very New Labour. But there was no Corbynesque rush for tickets while the pale sun shone.

In an upstairs room inside, 100 hastily-summoned loyalists plus five TV crews awaited Brown’s presence while watching the London Eye revolving. The wheel may have reminded them of Labour’s recent history. It takes you to the top where there are terrific views, then brings you down to earth where you started, but very slowly.

Someone had persuaded Brown that the message to activists - “start panicking” - might come better from him than from Tony Blair, so he was in a favourite position: Gordon to the rescue. As such, it was a classic Brown operation, a 50-minute speech trailed as “power for a purpose” all over the mainstream media for 48 hours before a word had been uttered. Retired grandees of the Royal College of Spin Doctors, Alastair Campbell and Gordon’s old knuckleduster, Charlie Whelan, could hardly have done better, though their slick successors in Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party crew might do.

All the same, it was as authentic a Brown speech as the kind the Labour leadership frontrunner has been making to largely adoring audiences since well-meaning Labour MPs decided to put a token leftwinger on the ballot paper. Not since the Mirror sold the Sun to Rupert Murdoch has an unforced error been so painful. Gordon would not have made it. In 2007, he didn’t, quite the reverse.

So he was erudite and earnest, passionate and long-winded, as he paced up and down enough to break a Fitbit, his pleading hands upturned, as if clutching a global crisis which had dropped into his lap on the bus. It was not an Alpha Brown performance like his eve of election speech in 2010 - too late - or his nearly-too-late intervention in the Scotland referendum. But Beta-Plus Brown should still carry some weight in a rational world.

Part of Sunday’s authenticity sprang from the obvious fact that Brown is anguished by the looming prospect of a serial rebel leading his beloved and stricken party to what he regards as certain humiliation … again. Never mind that many activists see his legacy as part of the problem, he defended Labour’s many achievements since 1997.

“It is not enough to be angry and anti-globalisation,” he said in half a dozen different ways. Being heartbroken after a bruising election defeat - I know about them, he conceded - is bad, but it is even worse if we leave ourselves powerless to do anything about it. The message to Camp Corbyn was that protests, rallies and resolutions are nothing without power.

To ram his point home, Brown quoted almost every Labour leader from Keir Hardie to Ed Miliband, even a favourable mention of that Blair fellow, plus Gandhi, Mandela and Nye Bevan. The only Labour leader not mentioned by name was the next one. Cowardice or even-handedness, Brown did not let a Burnham, Cooper, Kendall or Corbyn pass his lips.

But everyone knew which C-word was on his mind. “Hope is more than wishful thinking,” he said. The challenges of globalisation need answers that will not leave people “insecure, uncertain and unmoored,” and prey to charlatans. They will also need allies more reliable than Hezbollah, Hamas, Hugo Chávez’s successor and Vladimir Putin, Brown added. The Festival Hall audience didn’t need the Bletchley codebreakers to crack that one , but the TV audience just might. Brown was not in populist mode.

So it was all very Gordon. It has been reported that the Browns have recently spent time in California, where the lotus eaters wear beach gear and sun glasses all year, even when working hard. Would he turn up in T-shirt and shorts? Certainly not. The trademark dark blue suit, the knotted-to-death tie, the deathly pallor of a shift worker on overtime, all were in place. It was very intense.

And yet, as the self-styled has-been settled into his stride, he appeared to relax a little. When describing the strangely-named jobs of the future which may replace familiar ones that have disappeared, he even chuckled as he heard himself saying “drone dispatcher” and “avatar assistant”. He chuckled several times, virtually an epidemic.

Will the sermon, for it was close to being one, make any difference to the looming landslide? Possibly not in such heady days. Brown’s own career had taught him five lessons, he concluded: Labour activists must seriously seek power, but also listen, they must go beyond sloganising and address problems, they must offer hope, but also vote, not as a protest, but to help the neediest. It’s not like clicking “like” on Facebook, he told them. Facebook, eh? Does Jeremy do Facebook?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for The Guardian on Sunday 16th August 2015 18.45 Europe/London

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