Nothing much is certain in British politics these days, but assuming that the next general election will pit Gordon Brown against David Cameron, we can be sure of one thing: its result will be a referendum on rebranding. Can the slick young pretender convince the cynics out there that the Conservatives are no longer a party of posh toffs with nasty views on immigration and labour markets? Can the dour old Scot loosen up a bit and stop making the electorate feel so very uncomfortable? Even with a couple of years to go (Brown being increasingly less likely to call a snap election with Labour as much in the doldrums as it is), they’re already at it furiously: Gordon with his intimate interviews and glitterati dinner parties; Dave (whose efforts to rebrand are necessarily more about his party as a whole) with his solar panels and natty webcam, his hoodie love and public support of the NHS.
If opinion polls are to be believed, the latter is currently doing a better job of convincing people that his party can once again be electable than the former is doing of convincing us that he’ll be a viable prime minister. But this is not altogether surprising. What ticket is Brown fighting on? In the tricky compromise he must negotiate between distance (his fingerprints are all over the New Labour steering wheel) and continuity (he’d be ridiculed if he denied it), he will almost certainly create space between himself and the decision to go to war in Iraq, but this will not fool a public who associate Brown as inextricably with Blair as they do Rumsfeld with Bush. Until recently we might have counted on his trumpeting his thrilling decade in the Treasury, but recent soaring inflation and interest rates will have put paid to that.
In one key area, however, Brown’s record looks untarnished, and he is sure to make much of it. Integral as he was to Gleneagles and Live8 in 2005, and chummy as he remains with the likes of Bob Geldof, Bono and Jeffrey Sachs, all of whom are now synonymous with the cause, Brown can convincingly tell us he will be a prime minister who cares about reaching the Millennium Development Goals. True, elections aren’t won on development issues but on schools and hospitals (and yes, interest rates). But along with climate change, development is unquestionably sexy right now, and while Cameron’s Tories have somehow managed to whip the green mantle from under Labour’s nose, it is Labour — who after all made the radical move of creating a huge new governmental department from what was once a branch of the FCO — who still look like the party of development. Even so close to the bitter end, Tony Blair was last week in meetings with Angela Merkel to discuss the Africa Progress Panel, the high-end body that will report on pledges made at Gleneagles, and later this month plans to visit some of the continent’s poorest countries to reiterate Labour’s financial and political commitment to ‘making poverty history’.
Unsurprisingly, Cameron’s finely tuned radar has picked up on this. Earlier this year, his shadow chancellor George Osborne travelled to Uganda (with Jeffrey Sachs) to learn more about the Millennium Development Goals. He came back vowing that a Conservative government would better tackle problems such as malaria, which kills 3,000 children every day. Meanwhile, having already introduced a clutch of local social enterprise activities which engage members of the parliamentary party, encouraging them to work with prisons or homeless shelters in their constituencies, the Conservatives are about to launch a much more extensive and ambitious ‘social action’ project. And it’s impressive too: hoodies, bikes and iPods are easy enough to embrace, but living in a mud hut and building schools for genocide orphans in rural Rwanda takes rather more ambition, not to mention personal dedication.
The brainchild of Andrew Mitchell MP, Cameron’s dynamic shadow secretary for international development, ‘Project Umubano’ will take place across Rwanda over two weeks in July. The idea is to send around 30 self-funded Conservative MPs and party members to the country as part of a partnership and volunteering programme covering many societal sectors including education, economy, health and medicine, law, media, environment, business, tourism and, of course, governance. ‘Umubano’ is the Kinyarwandan word for friendship and the aim is to create a genuine two-way learning process, with each side leveraging the skills and knowledge of the other, rather than simply to allow UK politicians to impose their expertise while taking advantage of a good photo-op in a beautiful place. While the UK participants will offer targeted professional help in support of the development of Rwanda, they will simultaneously learn at first hand the sort of progress and governance issues faced by their African counterparts, and there has been a rigorous interview process of prospective participants to ensure a correct fit between skills and assignments. (Members of the Shadow Cabinet likely to go include Hugo Swire and David Mundell; Cameron himself plans to participate in the second week.) The ever-energetic Mitchell — who since being appointed shadow secretary has travelled extensively in Darfur, Burma, Congo and elsewhere in the developing world — will be ‘moving to the other side of the table’, spending a week in the Ministry of Finance in order to better understand the way aid and relations with the international donor community are handled by a developing country minister and his officials. Nor will the relationships end when the UK participants leave: Mitchell stresses the importance of the project’s legacy and outlines his proposals for a series of long-term partnership arrangements which will sustain it over the coming years, such as school-twinning and business and media placements.
Tellingly, Project Umubano has had a significant buy-in from third parties; not merely from agencies such as VSO and the UN, which have committed their support to ensuring best practice in-country, but from the Rwandans themselves — from the Rwandan ambassador to the UK, and Kigali’s mayor Aisa Kirabo, who have been actively helping Mitchell’s team make preparations, to President Paul Kagame, who has indicated his personal backing for the project. Mary Blewitt, a Tutsi who lost 60 members of her family in the 1994 genocide, is unreservedly enthusiastic about the idea. ‘Just to have people come to Rwanda is so important,’ she tells me. ‘To have friends who want to help us is a wonderful thing.’
Depressingly for Brown, one of the other many projects being included in the July extravaganza is Mayange, the Rwandan UN Millennium Village, which is apparently keen to host a Tory volunteer. First Bob Geldof advising David Cameron, then George Osborne very publicly hanging out with Jeff Sachs, now the Conservatives getting in on MDG action. Even when it comes to the continued electoral appeal of making poverty history, for so long a preserve of the Labour party, it seems poor old Gordon Brown needs to keep watching his back.
Clemency Burton-Hill is a contributing editor of The Spectator.