LM Comment
  8:58 pm GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar
07 May 1998

The dog that didn't bark

James Heartfield celebrated the first anniversary of the New Labour government with Prime Minister Tony Blair's radical critics

Ninety Blair refuseniks attended the Observer conference 'Has New Labour Made a Difference?' at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in central London and decided that it was ... hard to say and too early to tell. Originally billed as 'Labour's broken promises?' this was the gathering that threatened to sour New Labour's anniversary celebrations, but didn't.

The conference opened to the backdrop of last year's election video - now spookily triumphalist - and received a few titters from its gauche confidence. But the first speaker was former spin-doctor Derek Draper, who challenged all those present to consider whether they would have preferred the Tories to win. After all, he reminded them, "Labour governments are not there to build heaven on Earth, but to prevent hell on Earth". Meekly, speakers from the floor complained of redundancies in third level education, a failure on the part of the government to listen to women and an unhealthy alliance with media baron Rupert Murdoch. Like a good spin-doctor Draper was having none of it and gave them all short-shrift: there have to be cuts somewhere, why wouldn't women be interested in devolution and Murdoch did a good thing breaking the print unions anyway.

With a gulp, the audience took this new dispensation and moderated their claims. Anthony Barnett, one-time director of the constitutional reform group Charter 88, chided Draper to the effect that he was underselling New Labour, whose great innovations in devolution would be topped only by proportional representation. "Whatever grabs your fancy", said Draper disdainfully, "personally constitutional reform leaves me cold, and who said PR was more democratic?" Draper had been set up as an Aunt Sally to draw out the critics, as he coyly indicated when he said that he was surprised and flattered to be asked to open the conference, but it was a manoeuvre that misfired: round one to the spin doctor.

An enduring theme of the conference was Tony Blair's 'populism'. Populism is a bad thing. But popularity is good. Populism is defined as Blair saying something popular with which the critics do not agree. It is curious however that, whenever Blair does something to which the critics object, it is the people who are to blame. "He's just playing to the gallery", they hiss as New Labour enjoys a 29 point lead over the Conservatives. The personal approval rating for Blair is a spectacular 72 per cent (Telegraph/Gallup, 1 May 1998), so perhaps it is not surprising that his radical critics are feeling as alienated from the people as they did when they started calling Margaret Thatcher an 'authoritarian populist'.

Blair's authoritarian social agenda was wrong because it was populist, explained veteran radical Bea Campbell. Melanie Phillips murmured with approval, only objecting that the government did have to tell us all the difference between right and wrong.

The sense of the radicals' alienation from the people was most profound in its reaction to the Countryside Alliance, and its 250,000 strong demonstration in defence of fox hunting. The Guardian's green columnist George Monbiot and the Greater London Council veteran Hilary Wainwright, now editor of Red Pepper, worked furiously to explain away the demonstrators as tools of powerful financial interests. Fox-hunting philosopher Roger Scruton was forced to protest against the charge of being hoodwinked by toffs, in the poshest voice I have ever heard. Never has the phrase 'false consciousness' been so beautifully pronounced. He was replying to an unlikely hunt saboteur in advertising guru Peter York.

For a few months now Blair's radical critics in the liberal media have intimated that they are unhappy with his government, and its supposed 'Third Way' between old-Labour and Conservatism. Writing on 26 April, Will Hutton, whose newspaper sponsored this event, led the charge, saying "The Third Way only disguises New Labour's emergence as a party that defends the capitalist status quo". But as the anniversary approached, Blair weighed in to crush his critics, writing in the Guardian "There is, as ever, a curious coming together of critics left and right, about a modernised Labour party". (1 May 1998) Duly warned that any sniping will be read as joining the enemy camp, the critics kept their counsel, heaping praise on New Labour's first year in all their columns.

The Observer's conference was to have been the rallying point for Blair's critics, but then was successively down-scaled as the anniversary approached. There is a need for an opposition to New Labour, but it is not to be found amongst the radical left wing of the party, who owe too much to Blair to really rock the boat. This was a case of a dog that did not bark.

Join a discussion on this commentary

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk