Try as it might, New Labour just can't get rid of the spin thing.
Just a week after UK prime minister Tony Blair’s private pollster and key adviser Phillip Gould told ministers to ditch spin, New Labour is embroiled in another spin row – this time about whether it tried to gain a bigger role for Blair at the Queen Mother’s funeral in April 2002.
This is not the first time New Labour has unsuccessfully tried to ditch its ‘spin’ image.
Back in September 1998, Blair complained privately that ‘we may now be suffering more from spindoctoring than benefiting from it’ (1). Also at the end of 1998, then deputy prime minister John Prescott told the UK Independent that ‘we need to get away from rhetoric and back on to the substance of government’ (2).
After the general election of June 2001, Alastair Campbell stepped down as Blair’s official spokesman, with the aim of deprioritising spin. In October 2001, he told political advisers to ‘stop chasing after every headline’ (3). In May 2002, the same spinmeister told journalists, ‘We have got to be less buttoned-up, far more open, far less worried about what you guys are going to write’, and announced a series of reforms that would make New Labour more open (4).
The myth that pervades on all sides is that spin is the result of a personal obsession of New Labour advisers. If only Blair didn’t listen to Campbell so much; if only they weren’t so uptight about the news; if only they would talk about the ‘real issues’ of politics…then the spin thing would disappear.
But rather than being the preserve of a few individuals, spin is what politics is about now. When there are no clashing political ideologies – or even substantive differences in the policies of the main parties – political debate becomes reduced to competing images. It becomes a symbolic battle, a battle for representation.
New Labour won in 1997 because they won the battle for representation: the Tories looked tired, New Labour looked fresh; the Tories looked sleazy and incompetent, New Labour looked honest and organised. If there is no clash of visions about (for example) what should be done about the railways, all voters have to choose between the parties is the spin they put on their policy. There is no ‘real politics’ lying in wait under the cloak of spin: this is it.
This explains the control freakery of New Labour’s spindoctors. A party that represents a certain political position has a natural cohesion and coherence: its members have a set of beliefs, and do not have to be told every second what to say and how to say it. In the battle for representation, saleable images are contrived by spindoctors and every member has to be consciously ‘on message’ about their role in presenting this particular image. Alastair Campbell is constantly trying to invent images and then hold the image together.
This is why, try as it might, New Labour cannot get rid of the spin thing. If it tries to look honest and straightforward, this just looks like an image, too. Nothing could look less sincere than somebody trying to appear sincere. To be ‘honest’, to mean what it says, New Labour would have to have some beliefs of its own – honesty, first of all, is about being true to yourself.
But as the recent row about the Queen Mother’s funeral showed, spin is something that infects every area of public life. Every party in the row was spinning in an attempt to present themselves as having the moral highground.
This is especially the case among those who were professing to be anti-spin. Exposing spin is now a good way of scoring political points in the battle of representation. We see worn-out Tory politicians puffing themselves up with righteous indignation, preaching about honesty and integrity, and complaining that New Labour has degraded the noble office of prime minister.
The party of nothingness that is the Liberal Democrats lectures on how Labour should get back to the ‘issues that matter’ like hospitals and schools, and stop being so preoccupied with presentation (thereby presenting themselves as humble men of substance).
Even Sir Michael Willcocks, aka the archaic Black Rod, has been playing the game by apparently allowing his side of the argument to reach the press. The Mail on Sunday carried a picture of Black Rod complete with tailcoat and rod, with a quote saying how he had been put under ‘sustained and constant pressure’ by Blair’s office to change the arrangements for the funeral. Moreover, he was ‘furious’ about the affair, and ‘not prepared to lie’ (5).
That somebody like Black Rod appears to have fought in this way shows how little loyalty public servants have towards their institutions today. Rather than live out their integrity through public service, they become pin-ups of integrity (Black Rod: ‘not prepared to lie’). In the process, of course, they reveal how little integrity they really have; they reveal their own lack of substance.
New Labour itself played a large part in blowing up the Black Rod affair. Alastair Campbell fanned a spark into a fire by taking the Spectator and Mail on Sunday to the Press Complaints Commission for making such hurtful allegations about the prime minister. Had Campbell done nothing, the story probably would have died. Here Campbell betrayed New Labour’s extreme defensiveness – almost verging on paranoia – about how they appear.
This overcompensation and drive to meddle comes from New Labour’s awareness of its own shallowness. It senses that, in the image war, it is standing on nothing – yet all the time it is battling to gain the appearance of being something.
But in the end, the consequence of spin wars is to make public life look even more farcical. The indignation of the anti-spin preachers rings false; Labour’s protestations of honesty make it look more dishonest. The effect of the whole affair will be to reinforce public cynicism about politics, politicians, civil servants…the whole lot of them. Indeed, it breeds cynicism about the very idea of politics – the idea that it is possible to organise politically to discuss how society is organised.
The thing is, most of the participants in the spin wars probably realise this. As the Black Rod row unfolded, a number of people tried to draw a line under it, and say: ‘Okay, now, STOP.’ Deep down, everybody knows that this is a stupid row, and that it has destructive consequences.
But somehow, they just can’t help themselves. It is like a group of kids arguing where each wants to get the last word. Once a row about spin begins, it sets in a dynamic of one-upmanship, where politicians, civil servants and the media all pile in. In the symbolic scrap that follows, all parties have only one concern – not so much to save themselves, but to save their self-images.
This sleazy obsession is a scandal, by Mick Hume
(1) Quoted in Go tell that to the Marines, Observer, 21 October 2001
(2) Quoted in New Labour, New Language?, Guardian, 2 March 2002
(3) Quoted in Go tell that to the Marines, Observer, 21 October 2001
(4) Major surgery for Labour’s spin doctors, Guardian, 3 May 2002
(5) Mail on Sunday, 16 June 2002
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