When control freaks lose it and spindoctors twist in the wind
It is striking the extent to which New Labour’s woes now seem to be media-driven.
Remember when commentators tried to scare us with stories about New Labour ‘control freaks’ who apparently dictated everything, and the Blairite ‘spindoctors’ who supposedly controlled public debate through their manipulation of the media? If they sometimes made it seem as if Tony Blair was Stalin reborn, his PR man Alistair Campbell was generally cast in the role of a Bond movie villain bent on world domination.
In the midst of their current crises, however, reality is drawing a rather different picture of New Labour leaders. They look less like domineering control freaks than out-of-control weaklings, capable of producing endless reports and paper laws but paralysed under the slightest pressure. And far from spinning news stories, we see them being blown first this way and then that by the latest headlines about freed foreign rapists or John Prescott’s sexual shenanigans. As the media leaves New Labour twisting in the wind, it is worth asking: who’s spinning whom now?
These sort of crises have happened before, of course; we have all lost count of how many times Blair has reportedly suffered his ‘worst week ever’. What is striking, however, is the extent to which all of the government’s problems now appear to be media-driven. They are not facing concerns that have been raised spontaneously by the public, and there are no serious movements of political opposition in society. Instead the government seems to be besieged by nothing more than journalism.
Nor is New Labour struggling to cope with major events in the world beyond its control. In this sense the comparisons being drawn between the events of the past week and ‘Black Wednesday’ in September 1992 are out of place. Back then, the authority of John Major’s Conservative government was irreparably damaged when the pound was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism and Britain was plunged into economic turmoil, precipitated by a dramatic increase in interest rates that hit millions of mortgage holders hard. As political crises go, the current media-led scandals hardly appear to be in the same league.
But the politicians are not innocent victims of a ‘meejah conspiracy’. New Labour has asked for this. What we are witnessing is not so much the power of the press as the weakness of the political class. It is New Labour’s fundamental lack of firm political foundations that has left it so vulnerable. And its panicky, near-paranoid responses to media pressure always ensure that things get worse. At root, the government’s wounds are self-inflicted. The media are merely the messengers, delivering the news about how shaky New Labour has become.
Take the furore over the mistaken release in Britain of hundreds of foreign prisoners who were supposed to be considered for deportation. There is something more underlying this than the incompetence of individual ministers that preoccupies media reports. It is a stark example of the paralysis of a state machinery that seems incapable of doing anything decisive. It illustrates the problem we have discussed before on spiked – of power without purpose. When the government lacks any clear sense of its own mission or vision of the Good Society it is supposed to be creating, it is generally incapable of exercising its authority in a meaningful way. Thus New Labour can pass a law for identity cards to help keep 60 million citizens under surveillance; but it cannot keep tabs on a thousand convicted criminals.
Instead we live under a system of government by knee-jerk, where the government churns out an endless stream of overnight initiatives and paper targets designed to catch headlines and, hopefully, a few votes. This was how the Home Office itself laid the basis for the overblown panic over foreign rapists supposedly running riot around the country, with all its tough-sounding words about cracking down on crime and kicking out bogus asylum seekers.
New Labour has also asked for the drubbing it has received in the media, at the hands of a few victims of foreign criminals. It was the government, after all, which tried to make emotional capital out of putting victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. Now that has come back to haunt it, with home secretary Charles Clarke proving no match for the sort of media-friendly emotive victim-advocacy his office has often encouraged. Blair’s predictably knee-jerk response to all this, with headline-seeking big talk about a get-tough policy to kick out all foreigners convicted in Britain, is as much a blow to justice as it is a hostage to fortune and a guarantee of further such scandals to come.
The Prescott saga, too, confirms how New Labour has left itself open to being made easy meat by a scandal-hungry media. As we have often discussed on spiked, ours is an era characterised by the elevation of banal issues to do with personality over broad principles, and a focus on exposing politicians’ ‘character’ rather than studying their convictions (not that an eager student could easily locate the latter in any case). Nobody did more to help bring this situation about than the leaders of New Labour, who collaborated with much of the media in a sustained campaign to brand the last Tory government as sleaze-ridden and personally disreputable. That preoccupation with sleaze has frequently come back to bite the Blair government from behind (see Tessa Jowell: when the political gets too personal, by Mick Hume).
But this is worse still. The preoccupation with the personal has now reached the point where the government can be embroiled in scandal, even where there is no evidence of political sleaze involved. I have no wish to defend Prescott’s antics, and would agree that there are plenty of reasons for wanting him out of government. But how is having consensual sex with a middle-aged secretary one of them?
When the Republicans ludicrously tried to impeach US President Bill Clinton over his affair with an intern, they could at least claim the pretext that he had allegedly lied to a congressional hearing. Prescott has made no effort to lie to anybody – except presumably his wife, and that is her business rather than ours. Yet having made such an issue of its ‘whiter than white’ self-image, the Blair government cannot escape being damaged by such a non-scandal. This is how low the notion that the personal is political has now sunk. It is enough to make the question of Tessa Jowell’s mortgage application seem really important and interesting by comparison.
New Labour appears badly battered by the current crop of crises. But the media-driven character of these events means it would be foolish to assume there are any gains of substance in this for the opposition parties. However badly Labour does when the results of Thursday’s local elections become clear, and however many seats others can claim to have gained, none of this should be seen as a genuine change in political life.
The longer-term results are likely to be even greater instability in government, and even more widespread cynicism about politics in general. It might be obvious who are the losers in the scandal-obsessed politics of the moment. Who if anybody might be the winners, however, remains far harder to spot.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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