Labouring under an illusion
James Heartfield explains why Blair's government can never live up to its promise to be sleaze-free
Politicians, having power but not wealth, are perennially tempted to translate the one into the other. As long as there has been a parliament there has been a degree of corruption, going back to the Chancellor Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam in the fifteenth century.
The corruption of politics - a simple fact of the separation of political authority and capitalist wealth - though, is a different thing from the politics of corruption. The politics of corruption started, in Britain at least, as a public crusade by the Labour opposition and the press against the then Conservative government.
There was substance to some of the allegations made against the Tories, but there was also a lot of pious grandstanding. Venal arrangements that had been an accepted part of the everyday business of politics were suddenly cast in a new light. Hospitality that had been seen as a perk of the job was now presented as evidence of corruption.
The politics of corruption has transformed British public life, most importantly in destroying the Conservative Party. More recently it has come back to haunt the New Labour administration that had previously gained by it. But it is important to understand what the political crusade against corruption is.
For New Labour, crying 'corruption' was a way of attacking the Conservative Party while leaving Conservative politics uncriticised. New Labour had, after all, adopted the Tories' pro-market policies wholesale. Making an issue out of their opponents' moral rectitude was a way of squaring the circle of how to criticise a government whose policies you are largely in tune with. Crying corruption let New Labour reap votes where they had not sown a political alternative.
For the media, too, the campaign against corruption was a kind of fantasy politics, in which a government whose grip on power seemed intractable could be demolished with a single exposé. Exposing Tory sleaze cut the Gordian knot of the Tories' grip on parliament.
But the crusade against corruption also transformed the political landscape. The hope that the reputation of parliament would be restored by a change of government was a pious wish. By raising the issue of personal rectitude with such single-mindedness, New Labour and the media between them had changed the nature of politics. In the absence of political differences, personal morality became the point on which all judgements turned.
New Labour's promises of transparency in government and a new pact with the people altered the expectations and perceptions of how ministers and MPs ought to behave. The harsh spotlight has fallen on the personal morality of the politicians, to the exclusion of their public policies. There is little point complaining that the press is overwhelmingly concerned with personal issues and missing out on 'real' politics. Thanks to the changes wrought through the anti-corruption crusade, personal character is the substance of modern politics.
The expectations that politicians would become latter-day monks, foregoing all pleasures of the flesh and personal ambition, was, to say the least, unrealistic. Former trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson's house has been touted as a sign of high living. But how many Fleet Street editors have a house valued less than £500 000? It is hardly outrageous that one of the most important figures in the government should not live in a council flat. But then it was Mandelson more than most who promoted the idea that New Labour could be trusted to behave like maiden aunts.
But if the promise of saintly forbearance is unrealistic for politicians in general, it is doubly unrealistic for New Labour. Having cut itself off from its traditional source of funds, the trade union leadership, New Labour made itself dependent on the largesse of a handful of carpet-bagging 'socialist millionaires'. At the same time, Labour made a point of opening up government to business influence, without ever really considering that businessmen are not in the habit of giving something for nothing.
Millionaire Geoffrey Robinson's influence snaked through New Labour - disproportionately because, despite the hype, the rich and wealthy are not naturally attracted to New Labour. Other high-profile supporters like Bernie Ecclestone, the tobacco-advertising Formula One millionaire, made big donations that drew the obvious question: what does he get in return? The more that New Labour boasted of its financial transparency, the more obvious its makeshift links to business became, especially since they were put together with such indecent haste. New Labour's nouveaux riche were likely to attract some comment anyway, but with the ostentatious protestations of clean hands and abstemious lifestyles, the scandals that followed were entirely predictable.
The character issue won Labour the election, and it is unrealistic to imagine that it would just go away, leaving parliament to return to business as usual. Character is now everything in political life. The prime minister's overplayed trump card is to put his personal reputation on the line. With character dominating public life, it is of course understandable that where the government falls down is where ministers fail to live up to the puritanical ideal that they have created.
The protests that newspapers ought not to be interested in the private lives of philandering Robin Cook, cruising Ron Brown or Jack Straw's dope-smoking son is laughable. Why should they not be interested in the very commodity that New Labour's politicians have been trading in since taking office: moral righteousness?
The impact of such personal scandals is entirely degrading, not just to the politicians concerned but to the public as a whole. The ghoulish details of Robin Cook's personal life are shaming not just to him or his wife, but to all of us who are drawn inexorably on to read the wall-to-wall coverage. With politicians that claim a monopoly on the moral high-ground, there is nothing to do but drag them down, expose their moral foibles and persuade ourselves that they are humanly flawed like us. The consequence is to debase everybody concerned.
With the sacking of ministers Mandelson, Robinson and adviser Charlie Whelan, there is another factor driving the scandal-hungry political process: in-fighting. Without any overriding ideological goals to cohere New Labour, the factional disputes between different cliques are always on the verge of spinning out of control. The forensic analysis of who briefed against whom makes interesting reading, if you are captivated by palace intrigues. It appears that friends of chancellor Gordon Brown's helped leak the story that trade secretary Peter Mandelson had an interest-free loan from paymaster general Geoffrey Robinson.
This kind of cliquish politics arises when there is not much else that binds New Labour together. Blair's presidential style of governing leaves the cabinet with little else to do than plot and scheme against each other, using their preferred weapons of briefing, leaking and spinning. It is tempting to read grand differences of approach into the factions, but that is to give them more credence than they deserve.
Some have tried to force the Mandelson/Brown rivalry into a New Labour/old Labour conflict, as if politics could still be understood in terms of left v right. The truth is that both men are architects of New Labour. If there are differences they are much more to do with the different functions that the two men have played in the transformation of the Labour Party. Mandelson's role managing the party and its rebellious members, as well as forging links with the Liberal Democrats, has made him into a hate figure for the left. But the truth is that the 'iron chancellor' Gordon Brown is just as implicated in changing Labour's clothes, abandoning Keynesian 'tax and spend' welfarism. Old Labour policies have no influence on the party, except in the nostalgic desire of the liberal press to find a principle to beat New Labour with.
The attempts by party managers like Jack Cunningham to relaunch Labour's political agenda are particularly forced. Protesting too much, Labour's ministers blame the press for trivialising politics with attention to personal foibles and in-fighting, as if these were not the things that ministers are mostly preoccupied with. Millbank Tower acted after the Mandelson/Robinson/Whelan resignations to publicise a 'raft' of policy proposals. Now try to name one of them.
Ministers reel off a list of government departments as if these in themselves constituted policy: health, employment, prisons...The truth is that the substance of political life today is the character and personal behaviour of the politicians themselves. New Labour made it that way, when they sought to sidestep the political struggle against the Tories in favour of a moral crusade against corruption.
The one person who has managed to stand above the in-fighting is the prime minister Tony Blair. And yet he more than anybody personifies the 'character' issue in British politics. For all the personal cliques in the New Labour government, it is important that Blair stands above the fray, and so he is largely insulated from the cliquishness that divides his cabinet. But this is authority at a terrible cost. Blair's holier-than-thou image is the ideal compliment to his sleaze-prone government.
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999