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TV UK, 8 November

The Project's psychological approach is an apt reflection of New Labour's mission.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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I’ve never had much sympathy for people who claim to have been disappointed by New Labour in government. I mean, were they paying attention at all? According to The Project (BBC1, Sunday and Monday at 9pm) even those on the inside were pretty clueless.

The Project is a drama about the rise of New Labour, set mainly between the general elections of 1992 and 2001, and based on extensive research and interviews with party insiders. Campaigning for election in 1997, Maggie Dunn repeats the mantra, ‘We have campaigned as New Labour, and we will govern as New Labour’, without ever seeming to realise that it is a threat as much as a promise.

The drama opens with the four central characters as student activists in Manchester, trying to stop a chemical company from polluting a river. This is supposed to establish their idealism, though it is a distinctly unideological idealism. This is the post-Militant, post-Cold War generation of Labour supporters who are as committed to ‘modernising’ the Labour Party as they are to whatever it is they are committed to. Clean rivers, I suppose.

Maggie and Paul work their way up the party hierarchy, each occasionally shocking the other with betrayals of principle, but these are really quite trivial. Maggie is disrespectful about Labour leftwinger Clare Short; Paul betrays the confidence of a Tory friend, etc. As Maggie becomes an MP and Paul a special adviser, the compromises become more profound. The government sticks rigidly to Tory spending limits, and lacerates the totemic Freedom of Information Bill, and they begin to ask themselves what they are working for anyway.

Paul gets involved with Lindsey, a nurse and a single mother, who helps with the 1997 election campaign, and then suffers the ‘disappointment’ first hand on a hospital ward. Kaye Wragg is an excellent actress, and her performance gives some depth to a character who would otherwise be little more than a cipher for the working class, and who must also suffer the indignity of providing the gratuitous nudity that marks The Project as a ‘serious drama’.

Strangely perhaps, The Project is nothing like The West Wing (E4, Thursdays and Sundays at 9pm), which also deals with the compromises of power. This is partly because The Project is a polemic, but in a funny way its focus is actually more personal and psychological. What does drive people to get into government if it isn’t politics? The closest we get to an answer is Harvey, a brash New Labour fixer who declares that his hero is Norman Tebbit. He is the type of person who lives on adrenaline and revels in dastardly deeds. Another cipher, then, but no nudity.

This psychological approach (and indeed the fact that The Project is a drama rather than a documentary) is an apt reflection of New Labour’s own mission. Policy is less important than presentation, because what New Labour really wants is to connect with people on a psychological, even emotional, level (1). The Project misses this by portraying New Labour as little more than an election machine, but faithfully reproduces the approach itself. Just as Blair is sincere about nothing in particular, Maggie and Paul are idealistic about nothing in particular. You just can’t help but like them.

As the credits went up at the press screening, the rightwing journalist and editor Andrew Neil loudly asked when the Guardian had gone into TV production. (As Neil ought to know, the Guardian has gone into TV production – although this isn’t one of theirs.) Actually the programme is quite interesting on the relationship between the media and politics: one of the main characters works on BBC Radio’s Today programme, which New Labour sometimes regards as the real opposition, and the ensuing tension is quite impressive.

It is impossible to watch The Project without getting the message, and it isn’t very profound, but there is enough dramatic contemplation of personal motivation and loyalty to make the programme worth watching. Just don’t miss the West Wing.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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(1) This was described very well in The Century of the Self. See TV UK, 4 April

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Topics Politics

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