Ed Miliband is hobbled by the myth of the mess Labour left behind. His predecessor can explode it, but he must say where he went wrong
This week the underpants snapped back. Sir John Major, forever etched in the collective memory (thanks to the Guardian's Steve Bell) as a pair of grey Y-fronts in human form, proved the old elastic has not lost its spring. He made a rare intervention to remind the Conservatives that they lose when they look heartless, that there is a silent phenomenon of "lace curtain poverty" in Britain and that exorbitant energy prices have left many choosing between eating and heating their homes.
His call for a windfall tax on the energy giants, utterly at odds with government policy, hurt the Tories badly – leaving David Cameron so exposed at prime minister's questions the next day that Ed Miliband was able to give him a thorough shredding. But it did prompt an unlikely thought.
What about the other defeated prime minister, whose public interventions are even rarer than Major's? What useful move might Gordon Brown make?
The unkind will say nothing, adding that Brown is still so radioactive a figure that, if he truly wants to help Labour, he will remain unseen and unheard. My guess is those harshest critics include Brown himself, which would explain why he is an absence in Westminster (despite the fact that he retains his Commons seat). He can, and surely will, get stuck into the independence debate in Scotland, where he still commands respect; but elsewhere the consensus suggests he stay hidden.
But there is a powerful case against that hermit strategy. For Brown's three-year premiership does not belong only to the past. It is central to current politics. It could even prove decisive to the outcome of the 2015 election.
That's because the coalition is founded on a simple premise: that the two ruling parties had to join together "to clear up the mess inherited from Labour". Those words have been spoken with numbing regularity every day since May 2010. They represent the defining principle of this government, that it exists to repair the damage left by its predecessor, specifically the ballooning of the deficit and wrecking of the public finances. In this conception, the Tories and Lib Dems were like the allies taking charge of a ruined Berlin in 1945: their task was to rebuild from the rubble.
That story, told and told again, has sunk deep into the public consciousness. On it is predicated what will surely be the central theme of the coming Tory election campaign: that Britain is finally on the road to recovery – witness today's strong growth figures – so why hand the keys back to the people who drove us into the ditch in the first place?
But if voters blame Labour for the economic calamity of 2008, that won't just be a problem in 2015. The 1978-9 winter of discontent hung over Labour for two decades: for four general elections in a row, the Tories successfully saddled their opponents with archive images of uncleared rubbish and tales of unburied dead. If that pattern is repeated, Labour will be taunted over 2008 in the elections of 2020, 2025 and 2030.
That this view has been allowed to harden in the public mind is partly Brown's fault. The coalition was allowed to repeat the "mess we inherited" line unchallenged in its first six months in office because Labour was engaged in a leadership contest that forced it to turn inward. Had Brown emulated Jim Callaghan, and stayed on as leader for a year after defeat, David Cameron would not have had the megaphone all to himself. As it was, he was able to spin a myth of Labour in office that has settled into received wisdom.
Staying on could have been Brown's last act of duty for a Labour party he had served his entire adult life. But there is another deed he could perform. He could speak out now.
He could start the work, long overdue, of dismantling the myth. He might mention that the economy was, in fact, recovering when Labour left office, that growth stood at 1.1% in the second quarter of 2010 – rather better than the 0.8% increase announced today. He could add that that incipient recovery was choked by a coalition government that arrived telling the world Britain was the next Greece, announcing severe austerity and so shattering economic confidence.
More importantly, he could try to nail once and for all the notion that the increased deficit was due to incontinent Labour spending. Patiently, he should explain that the deficit mushroomed because of the great crash, which triggered an instant collapse in output and tax revenues: Labour had to borrow more because suddenly and unavoidably less money was coming in. That was the result of a global economic crisis that was not caused by the decision-making of Gordon Brown. To repeat the under-used Labour line of the time, the recession was made on Wall Street, not Downing Street.
All this will come to Brown easily. But if he truly wants to help his party, he will have to do something much harder. It will be painful for a man as proud as he is, but he will need to say where he went wrong. He will need to identify Labour's mistakes – the blind eye to a City running wild; the over-reliance on both high finance and a house-price bubble, fed by the naive belief that the money from both would flow forever – and make them his own. He should say that if the voters want someone to blame for those missteps they should blame him, not the Labour leaders of today.
The two Eds would probably be appalled by the very idea of a Brown re-emergence. Why dredge up the past, they would say; why remind the electorate of a Labour government it spurned? Cameron would only seize on a Brown apology to reinforce the existing narrative: "See, even Gordon Brown admits Labour messed up."
Those risks are real but they do not outweigh the rewards. Brown could start to remove the albatross that hangs around Labour's neck now and that threatens to remain there for years to come. He would, at last, be able to defend the record of Labour's 13 years in government, still obscured by its final 18 months. He would be able to note the long years of growth, the desperately needed investment in schools, hospitals and national infrastructure, the help for the poorest. Under his much-derided system of tax credits and benefits, those at the bottom were insulated from poverty wages: now we can see how vulnerable they are without them. Brown was once a towering figure in British politics. He still has one last gift to give the Labour party he loves. He should do it. He will help Labour – and, even if he won't ever fully restore his reputation, he might edge closer to the one he deserves.