James Heartfield runs through a roll call of the elite that runs New Britain
At the heart of Tony Blair's New Britain is a network of advisers, spindoctors, media players and business people which has been turned into a new elite, often replacing the old establishment.
Under Blair the traditional centres of political power - parliament and the cabinet - have been demoted in importance. The prime minister rarely attends the House of Commons, preferring to make major policy announcements at press conferences, preferably in his own Downing Street back garden. The cabinet reportedly sits for about half an hour on a Thursday, rarely keeping to the agenda. Blair is impatient with discussion, aiming instead at a 'lean government'. Government to him is about results, not process.
As a consequence of Blair's frustration with his colleagues in government, a formidable alternative apparatus of unelected political aides has grown up alongside the cabinet.
In Blair's inner circle are his chief of staff, the career diplomat Jonathan Powell, and four 'units'. The press office is run by former Mirror journalist Alastair Campbell, often referred to as the second most powerful man in Britain. The Policy Unit is led by David Miliband, a career policy-wonk, along with one-time lobbyist for the Prima PR firm Roger Liddle, as well as former Financial Times journalist Andrew Adonis. The Social Exclusion Unit, led by former Demos director Geoff Mulgan, is formulating government policy on issues like single mothers and crime. On top of these, Blair has created a new Research Unit, with two researchers under ex-BBC man Bill Bush.
Like courtiers, the political advisers multiply in number, as each status-seeking department demands its own. To mollify chancellor Gordon Brown over the leadership that was denied him, the Treasury has more advisers than anybody else, including the Harvard-educated, Clinton-connected husband of Blair babe Yvette Cooper MP, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband (David's brother), and, until he was sacked, Charlie Whelan, who once helped Scottish trade union official Jimmy Airlie to fight off his left-wing critics. Brown also has a useful personal assistant in Sue Nye, who used to work for Neil Kinnock.
The right-wing press has made a big deal about the collective salary of the advisers: around £4 million a year. Individually, though, even the highest paid like Alastair Campbell (£90 000) or Ed Balls (£66 000) are paid less than the chief executive of a local authority and far less than a national newspaper editor. The sum appears large because there are more advisers than ever before. Once in power, New Labour found the civil service, created as a conservative influence in an age of mass politics, too unwieldy for 'lean government'. So it created its own machine - with the result that now there are two bureaucracies alongside each other.
The proliferation of the advisers suggests to some critics the emergence of a Soviet-style nomenklatura. But in fact the spindoctors have little independent political influence. The usefulness of the advisers is that they are beholden to nobody but their ministers. They can be sent to sort out a problem - whether that be an errant MP, carping editor or fractious local party - in the knowledge that they have no baggage or loyalties that will stop them coming back with a result. At least, not if they want to keep their jobs.
The spindoctors have a habit of burning up in internecine disputes. Lacking the more solid motivations of ideology or faction, they have managed to substitute personal infighting for the political process because they owe their status entirely to patronage. Mostly insecure individuals, they are keen to please and hardworking, but often lack the judgement that comes with personally won authority. Spindoctors who have fallen from grace, like Charlie Whelan and Derek Draper, have as yet failed to achieve much outside of their offices.
The original spindoctor, Peter Mandelson, understood that the kind of influence he wielded as director of communications was illusory and tried to trade it in for conventional political authority - in the face of opposition from his sponsors, former leader Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, who did not want to lose him as hatchet man. Mandelson's old ways were at odds with his newly sought status as politician. Where he had made a virtue of doing the unpopular thing on behalf of his sponsors, actively seeking popular support in the party only made him vulnerable to attack, limiting his old powers. In 1997, the party declined to elect him to the National Executive Committee as a snub to the leadership, and in 1998 he was exposed in the kind of 'corruption scandal' that he had used to undermine politicians. Now Blair has decided that his fixing skills are best put to use in relation to the Unionists of Northern Ireland.
The personnel of New Labour's apparatus are most interesting for what they say about the sources of modernisation. They are largely defined by an experience of resentment against the claims of the old left.
Some were recruited from the Social Democratic Party that split from a more traditional Labour Party in the 1980s, like Roger Liddle and Andrew Adonis in the Policy Unit. Others come from the Communist Party, whose own abandonment of its traditional leftism preceded New Labour's, like Mulgan and Whelan. Blair's new adviser Bill Bush was Ken Livingstone's chief of staff at the Greater London Council (GLC), where junior ministers Tony Banks and Paul Boateng were both members. But others were recruited from film producer David Puttnam's Enigma Productions, which operated a kind of alternative Labour policy unit, like John Newbegin, or Dome organiser Ben Evans. In the media, the Weekend World team provided Mandelson, economics adviser Charles Leadbeater (formerly of the FT), as well as London mayor hopeful Trevor Phillips - all of whom had also been in the Communist Party when it was setting out to renounce its heritage. The New Man of modernised Britain is rootless, without loyalties, ties or commitments.
New Labour's embrace of the City seems to exemplify its corruption by big business. But just as important is the change within the business world indicated by its embrace of New Labour. Identification with New Labour is opportunistic, no doubt. But it also indicates that many business people feel the need to be seen to do more than just make money. The influence goes both ways, with New Labour lending respectability to 'enterprise' while business gives a boost to Blair's airy 'values'.
The first businesses to get into bed with New Labour were public relations companies employed to improve the party's image. Boase Massimi Pollit (BMP) first caught Labour's eye when it had the account for the GLC during its striking - if hollow - billboard campaign against abolition. (BMP director Chris Powell was a useful link, being brother to Margaret Thatcher's chief of staff Charles Powell and the diplomat Jonathan Powell, who introduced Blair and Brown to the Clinton campaign team in America, before accepting the job as Blair's chief of staff.) After resigning as director of communications to stand for parliament, Peter Mandelson worked for the PR firm SRU, handling accounts like Thorne-EMI, advising on the 'greening' of industry. SRU's director Colin Fisher hosted a weekend conference for Blair and Brown to work out their policies. Brown's girlfriend Sarah Macaulay is one half of the PR firm Hobsbawm Macaulay, along with Julia, daughter of Communist Party historian Eric Hobsbawm.
The PR firms' polls were deployed strategically to justify the abandonment of Labour's traditional policies in the 1980s. Key advisers like Philip Gould were recruited direct from marketing firms. In exchange they got influence with the New Britain that was being forged. Hobsbawm Macaulay today handles accounts for organisations which are in similar need of shedding a bad reputation, like lottery company Camelot's charitable foundation (run by an old Communist Party contact, Sue Slipman, who joined the SDP in the 1980s), and the Metropolitan Police's post-Lawrence inquiry Racial and Violent Crime Taskforce. Other lobbyists, like Roger Liddle and Mandelson assistant Derek Draper, got caught red-handed trying to translate New Labour contacts into cash.
After the PR firms, New Labour has been closest to the media, partly because it has recruited from it, and partly because it has paid such a close interest to it. Outgoing BBC director general John Birt was close to Mandelson since he worked on Birt's flagship Weekend World (Mandelson has been on walking holidays with Birt and broadcaster Jon Snow). Birt's replacement, businessman Greg Dyke, was appointed in the face of Ó Î criticisms over his apparent loyalty to New Labour. Channel 4's chief Michael Jackson is Mandelson's neighbour. In print, the late Robert Maxwell first recommended his star political reporter Alastair Campbell to Neil Kinnock. Former Observer editor Robert Harris is a close friend of the Blairs who introduced them to many important contacts.
Labour's own millionaire, the MP Geoffrey Robinson, was important in making links with business, as was Brown aide Sue Nye's husband, the Goldman Sachs' economist Gavyn Davies. Many of New Labour's business advisers and supporters were already looking for respectability on Prince Charles' Community Taskforce. With the prospect of being elected, New Labour looked more attractive. At first it was mavericks like lingerie millionaire Linda Wacher, Ministry of Sound impresario James Palumbo, or Creation Records' Alan McGee who flocked to New Labour. But before long serious money was wooing the Blair team, from British Airway's Bob Ayling to Rupert Murdoch (who secured a commitment that there would be no single currency in the first term).
After lonely years wooing City cynics, New Labour went overboard in making itself open to business. First millionaires like Lord Simon of British Petroleum and Lord Sainsbury gladly took up junior minister posts in the Blair government. New Labour ennobled supporters like John Haskins of Northern Foods, Lord Paul of Caparo Industries, Lord Levy of Chase Music and Lord Ali of the Big Breakfast. On top of that Labour has created more than 300 different taskforces and panels to advise government on different aspects of policy, which are stacked with businessmen. An Economist survey showed that 28 of the top 100 companies had a chairman or chief executive advising the government in one capacity or another.
The link with business opens up New Labour to charges of sleaze, especially when its own science minister Lord Sainsbury is making a £2 million donation. But with its ordinary membership falling from 405 000 to 360 000 since the election, Labour needs the big donations as an alternative source of income. Music promoter Lord Levy was a key fundraiser, and a tennis partner of Blair's, who raised £7 million for his private office before the election, the first of the 'blind trusts'. But the most recent leaked report of New Labour's high-value fundraising is disappointing, with only £1 million collected in the first six months of 1999 (big donors include American drug maker Isaac Kaye - £100 000 - and publisher Lord Gavron, who chairs the group which owns the Guardian - £500 000).
Doubtless such donors are buying influence - but it is just as important that business needs New Labour to legitimise its operations. MP Michael Clapham must have been surprised when quizzing the overseas development minister Clare Short about one mining company's record of oppressive labour relations to be told that 'Rio Tinto had a bad reputation, but it seems to be working to change. All of us, including my honourable friend, should meet Rio Tinto and get behind those improvements in performance'. Short added that she had given Rio Tinto Zinc a 'World Aware' award.
More broadly, the role of New Labour has been to housetrain hardened businessmen - like Ford's Ian McAllister and Lord Simon - in the new green and ethical codes, and even to reorganise their investment strategies. In truth, business has been yearning for this kind of higher meaning, after years of being branded as undercutting yuppies.
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999