Late last week, Bloggers4Labour posted an extended piece on ‘Myth-making and Politics’ in two parts - I & II - which I drafted an one of a series of summer essays that B4L are kindly promoting - I will post this here in a few days after I tidy up a few grammatical bloopers I’ve since noticed - drawing a response from Neil Harding of Brighton Regency Labour Party which I’m going to respond to below.
It was very clever waxing lyrical about Machiavelli, Sophists and past Kings, and linking it to New Labour spin. All very interesting but I think your conclusions of where New Labour are and where they are going don’t quite tie in with the points you made.
Firstly, I don’t agree that ‘New Labour’ invented spin. You have fallen into the trap of believing the media on this.
Not at all - as I noted the age of modern image politics and the close symbiotic relationship between the media and the press really began in earnest during the 1960’s; although it can be argued that is extends back before that, to a lesser extent, to at least the Eisenhower presidency, as satirised by Phillip K Dick in his short story ‘The Mold of Yancy’
Spin has been around for ages and the Tories have been masters for a long time. What did change with ‘New Labour’ was that we now play the right wing press and the Tories at their own game.
Because of the domination of the Tory supporting press, Tory spin is not highlighted, e.g. they were stage managing their conferences well before us, yet Labour have been labelled the spinmeisters!
I’d agree that the Tory’s really kicked the whole business of ’spin’ into overdrive at the end of the 1970’s, not least by openly engaging the services of Saatchi and Saatchi, but I would argue that within the New Labour Project, the whole public profile of ’spin’ has increased markedly and its use (and abuse) has become very much more obvious and visible.
Alighting on the stage management of Tory conferences is not really a good example - yes, we know they were heavily stage-managed but then that was what people expected from them because they had no real history or tradition of internal democracy within the party. Add to that the fact that Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, always managed ot maintain the clear perception that he was the servant of the government and the Tory’s succeeded, for the most part, in keeping a bit of clear water between the way the conducted government and the way government was ’sold’ to the public.
That’s a line that’s become extremely blurred during the Blair years, thanks in the main to Mandelson and Campbell, leaving with public with the perception that the process of ’spin’ has become too closely associated with government to the point where its difficult to tell what is actual policy and what is just a ’sales pitch’.
That’s the point I was making, that over the last eight years we’ve become too obvious about the whole business.
I think that this whole emphasis by the media on spin rather than the spin itself is largely responsible for the drop in turnout. Look at how well spin served Thatcherism. Only when it was blindlingly obvious that we had a corrupt, incompetent government did voters desert them in droves.
The drop in turnout has been a generational thing not because past voters have stopped voting. These are people who have NEVER voted. To get these people to start voting is going to be a lot harder than winning over lapsed voters.
I think its a mistake to simply put the decline in turnout down to a generational thing. There is certainly an element of truth in it, young people don’t see voting as an ‘important public duty’ in the same way that older people do but that just means we have to work much harder, these days, to engage the interest of young people - we can no longer just rely on their having a sense that voting is the ‘right thing to do’ to get them into the polling booths.
I notice you steer clear of blaming the media or the electoral system for any of this low turnout. But these two issues are crucial. With reform in these two areas we could address a lot of the cynicism of politicians and politics in general. It is not always the politicians fault!
With a less overtly biased media, we could avoid the deliberate smearing of politicians (mostly Labour) that is largely uncalled for.
I think you may be over-estimating the influence of the unreconstructed Tory press - the Mail, Express and Telegraph in particular. I don’t see them as being so important as they are so obviously biased that all they can do these days in preach to the already converted - I doubt a single vote at the last election swung on the influence of any of those papers.
What has changed in the media is two things.
What swung quite a number of seats last time around was voters switching from Labour to the Lib Dems, giving the Tories a clear run though the middle as their support held up - if any parts of the media had an influence there it would have been the liberal/left-wing Independent and Guardian, not the Tory press.
Lets also remember that the Murdoch press has given it endorsement to New Labour at the last three elections as well. Murdoch is playing a different game to the rest these days. He may be, by nature, a conservative but what matters more to him is that his papers are seen to have backed the winning side. If you look at how Murdoch has operated both in the UK and US over the last eight years its obvious that he believes himself and his companies to be the ‘kingmaker’ - he’s unlikely to see himself as having much in common with Gordon Brown, for example, but if by the next election a Labout win looks on, he’ll still ensure that his companies are endorsing Labour so as to maintin the perception that elections are won and lost on his influence.
And with electoral reform, we can give more reason for people to vote. Especially those that support radical views outside the main party agenda that is currently ignored. This is why we get a ‘least worst’ option as government rather than a full representaion of what people want. It is because our electoral system presents most voters with the choice ‘least worst’ or ‘bust’. Most now choose ‘bust’!
But we have to recognise that if PR would make a difference then our failure to put it in place is very much the fault of the politicians. We ran on a reforming platform in 1997 then promptly forgot about it on attaining power because it no longer suited the interests of our own political elite.
But there’s no guarantee that PR would make much difference at the moment, precisely because the public has not just lost confidence in the electoral system but in politics and politicians.
What was Blair’s response to having Labour’s majority cut to 66?
‘We’ve listened and we’ve learned’
Where’s the evidence of that? In what respect has he shown that he’s done either? None that I can see.
That’s why I highlighted Tony McNulty’s comments about ID cards, because it sums up the attitude in government at the moment - if at first you don’t succeed, try a different sales pitch.
Lastly media and electoral reforms would free the Labour party to campaign on the issues you suggest rather than being stuck with sophistry. The reason we had to resort to spin was because ‘we didn’t get a fair press’ with which to get across our ideas.
How can we put across an argument (especially one that might be complex) with the current press that we have? A great example was how the press reported the governments tentative but highly laudable ideas on road pricing.
But what arguments did we actually put forward on road pricing? Certainly nothing of real substance.
Yet again, what we did was float a half-formed idea in the press to see what kind of reaction it got and then quickly back-pedalled when it went down badly - there was no detailed policy behind these proposals, no case that we could go out an argue, just a few vague notions of how it might work and a hope that it might fly with the public.
That’s the danger of constantly playing to the crowd and courting the popular vote - there are times that government’s have to take tough decisions and do what its right even if, at first, it may not be particularly popular and its on those occasions that you need to work hardest to win the public over by puting forward real solid, rigorous arguments.
If the parliament of the day had simply gone with the ‘popular vote’ at the time then both the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six would have been executed by the state - even though we know now they were all innocent men. Part of being a politican is sometimes being strong enough to tell the public, ‘No, this time you’ve got it wrong’…
… before the fact, not afterwards while desperately trying to cover your arse as has been the case over Iraq.
If Blair was so all fire keen on intervening in Iraq on humanitarian grounds, as he now claims, he should have said so from the outset. He should have said that he believed it was the right thing to do for that reason, even though that reason is illegal in International law, and then argued the case that it was international law and the UN which was out of step with the demands of the modern era. I would still have opposed the war for a range of other reasons but at least I could have respected his position, something I can’t so knowing that he basically lied in order to give the war a thin veneer of legality and then tried to cover his arse afterwards.
All he had to do when it became obvious that no WMDs were going to turn up was say ‘Look, we fucked up. We really believed he had WMDs and went in in good faith and now we’ve found out the intelligence was wrong and we’re left with a moral duty to sort thing out” and I think many people would have more respect for him than they do now.
Its that kind of thing, the weaselling out of responsibilities, that, more than anything, turns off voters.
Im also not so confident as you about winning the next election. All the psephology experts including John Curtice at Strathclyde University (who has got the last few elections spot on) think it will be a ‘hung parliament’.
With all this in mind, we should make these changes from a position of power rather than having a hand tied behind our backs by the Lib Dems, a party nobody understands, least of all themselves!
I’ve seen nothing, as yet, from either the Tories or the Lib Dems which suggests they can take power next time around. Boundary changes will make some small difference to way things pan out, I’m sure, but if the economy stays strong and with Blair out of way - notice that Gordon has quite clearly kept clear of anything too controversial - then are chances are pretty good.
The only real fly in the ointment could be a Tory ticket with Ken Clarke on board as he’s pretty much all they have left that’s capable of doing any real damage.
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