Politics gets personal
Far from being a media invention, the Blair/Brown spat reflects the malaise at the heart of political life.
Britain’s Blair/Brown media fever has risen to unprecedented heights.
Next Monday Brown’s Britain, by journalist Robert Peston, will be published. It contains revelations that prime minister Tony Blair reneged on deals he made to step aside for the chancellor, Gordon Brown. The spat is seen as a boil on the face of British political life. Commentators from all sides urge the two men to grow up and get on with their jobs. The News of the World described it as an ‘unhelpful distraction’ from the ‘big topics’ that voters want to hear about (1). Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer criticised their ‘narcissistic behaviour’ (2).
Labour politicians for their part present the issue as a media invention, drummed up by political editors eager for a bit of drama. Health secretary John Reid dismissed the stream of books reporting on Blair/Brown tittle tattle: ‘No one in this government will be, or should be, distracted from doing their jobs for the country by these books.’ (3)
But the Blair/Brown spat is not some strange abscess, which can be lanced to clear the way for ‘real politics’. Far from being the result of personalities or the media, it reflects the malaise at the heart of political life. If the Blair/Brown double act is centre stage of the media circus, it’s because there are no ‘big topics’ waiting in the wings.
The dispute is about nothing more than the raw, egotistical jostling for power. Those who imagine the chancellor to represent a left-field alternative to Blairism are sadly deluded. These are the two surviving architects of the small clique that put together New Labour in the early 1990s; their views couldn’t be separated with a cigarette paper. The two men’s statements at 10am last Thursday about the tsunami (which were presented by BBC News 24 on a single split screen) showed them jostling to make near-identical points.
A split Labour Party is nothing new historically. But the conflicts that threatened to tear it apart in the past were founded on political disagreements – about the party’s position on a general strike, for example, or on nuclear disarmament. What is unusual is that, five months before a general election, the governing party could be divided over the mere matter of personal ambition.
Personal rivalries are also nothing new in politics, but they tended to be contained by political allegiances. Who hated who wasn’t splashed all over the papers; often, we only found out years later, when the grand old men penned their Westminster memoirs. Today, with no common political interest to unite those at the head of the Labour Party, petty disagreements spin into public view.
While political editors’ search for a story may fuel the argument, it doesn’t cause it. The books and articles aren’t just made up – each one is packed with revelations from ‘a source close to’ Blair or Brown, and these sources aren’t teaboys either. The chancellor’s close ally Nick Brown was named as a source for Paul Routledge’s book on Gordon Brown in 1998, which revealed that Blair had broken a secret pact made in the 1994 leadership election (4). Far from being the victims of media speculation, Blair and Brown seem to be using journalists as proxy soldiers in their private war.
The leaders are having it out through the media because the Labour Party is no longer a proper political party. It has no political coherence and no grand common purpose beyond election for its own sake. There are no mechanisms for resolving disputes, no men in grey suits to demote individuals judged to be damaging the party. Blair and Brown’s grilling by Labour backbenchers was entirely parasitic on the media debate, as MPs pressed their leaders to account for this or that media quote.
No doubt the general public is sick of the whole affair, tired of unsourced quotes and endless speculation about the two men’s states of mind. Whether it will lose Labour the next election is another matter. Because there is nothing substantial behind the disputes, they have an ephemeral, here-today-and-gone-tomorrow feel about them. The fact that many voters just switch off could limit electoral damage to Labour. More predictable is the damage these petty spats are likely to inflict on the political process as a whole, as voters become even more disillusioned with political life.
Calls for unity, though, aren’t the solution. Some have criticised the dispute as a ‘macho showdown’, calling for politicians to be cooperative rather than confrontational. Others urge the party to pull together in order to win the 2005 election, as if electoral efficiency was the only thing that counts. This amounts to little more than an argument for a quiet life, dampening down disputes lest they get out of hand and cause difficulties.
On the contrary, we could use more fighting and disputes in political life. Only these disputes should be about questions that count, about the best ways of organising our society and living our lives. The din of some real political arguments would easily drown out politicians’ bickering and backstabbing.
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