After the next general election Gordon Brown may be holding the reins of industry. Daniel Butler talks to the man who wants to listen.
One thing seems to unite observers of Gordon Brown: respect. For many it is he and John Smith who have made the prospect of a Labour government a serious possibility. Certainly his performances, in and out of Parliament, have won praise from all sides. If Labour wins the next general election, within a few months the 41-year-old Scottish academic will be in charge of Britain's industrial policy. Is he up to the job, or merely an accomplished politician who thrives in the limelight of opposition, only to falter when faced with real power?
Brown's summary of the issues is succinct: "The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is a 'do nothing' ministry, still dominated by the No Turning Back group. There's a very strong free-market ideology - nothing has been learnt over the last 11 years." What the nation is crying out for, he says, is an active department with a strong emphasis on training, upgrading technology, balanced regional growth and long-term investment.
"The '80s ideology was that the Government did nothing - and it failed, resulting in a massive trade deficit, declining investment, the withdrawal from manufacturing in many areas and inadequate training." His voice seems weary, as if exasperated by the failure of others to spot what to him seems obvious. "Of course," he concedes, "the command economy also has no kind of credibility. What ought to happen is a partnership - that's what happens in other countries."
Brown the orator is impressive. There is little repetition, although he stresses more than once the importance of a DTI willing to listen. It is this which impresses so many of those who have dealt with him. Nick de Jongh, director of external affairs at the Engineering Employers' Federation, is one such cautious admirer. "He's got a very good grasp of the subject," he says. "His understanding of manufacturing industry is well above average and he's well informed about the issues which worry us. He's also very concise for a politician."
A concern for many people is the commitment in Labour's "Meet the Challenge" document to a DTI with "an equal, if not superior, status to that of the Treasury". Brown circumvents the problems by stressing the "mood" of the sentence: "When I tour the country talking to businessmen and women, a constant complaint is that no one is speaking up for the needs of industry. That is a major neglect."
In common with most successful Labour politicians, until recently Brown was regarded as on the left of the party. He was a fiery student leader, who cut his teeth arguing for devolution in the late '70s and attracted attention when he reached Westminster with what one commentator describes as "first-class leaks". Although still a member of the centre/left Tribune Group, he has since publicly shifted to the centre ground and is fiercely loyal to Neil Kinnock, despite having, as many see it, superior abilities. Nevertheless, many industrialists are worried that the fiery roots will spring new shoots should he be given the whip hand at the DTI.
The substance of his economic analysis also seems removed from his left-of-centre background: "The difference between us and the Conservatives is not that we oppose markets - because we don't, we support them - but that we recognise that they have their problems and limitations. The Conservatives don't accept that markets have flaws and gaps."