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TV UK, 21 April

Is Blair really a spin Svengali?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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How to Win Power was the first in Channel 4’s Election Unspun series (Monday night). The programme documented the rise of image-based politics beginning with the rebranding of Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s and bringing us up to the more celebrated PR machine of New Labour and the current general election campaign.

This was a useful reminder that politics has not always been as superficial as it is now, but the programme veered between lamenting the decline of substance and complying in the triumph of spin by ridiculing the vain efforts of those politicians who tried to hold out against it. Of course, this is not entirely the fault of the producers: the world really has changed, and as Labour’s election slogan reminds us, there can be no going back.

The problem with those politicians who lost out to focus groups and clever marketing was not that they stuck to their guns, however, but that their guns were all out of bullets. The Labour Party of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock was intellectually and politically bankrupt. (Its surviving heir, the over-indulged Tony Benn, was on hand to demonstrate.) You don’t have to be a Tory to agree with the former Tory PR advisor who noted that no amount of advertising can sell a duff product. But the programme conceded too much in suggesting that it was the Labour Party’s too-radical politics that cost it the 1980s. The trouble was that policies like nuclear disarmament and the abolition of the House of Lords were not tied to any broader programme of social change, and thus lacked credibility.

As How to Win Power reminded us, politics before Thatcher, roughly speaking, was based on class loyalties. Thatcher’s new strategy of reaching across class lines to treat voters as consumers reflected the exhaustion of class-based ideology, but also found a kind of dynamism in its collapse (a dynamism, it must be said, of a pretty right-wing sort). New Labour has pulled the same trick, but with diminishing returns, and diminishing turnout. You still can’t use advertising to sell a duff product, but in the absence of anything else, intellectual bankruptcy need not be an obstacle to winning an election if a party can at least look like it knows what it’s doing.

Tony Blair looked a bit better during his interview with Jeremy Paxman last night (BBC1) than he did in the midst of the Iraq war; looking prime ministerial is an important advantage he has over the still sinister-looking Michael Howard. His frequent use of the phrase, ‘I’m sorry’, not to apologise but to assert his rightness in the face of impertinent doubt, expressed the peculiar character of his statesmanship. I’m sorry, but I’m just right, right?

Anyone who thinks politicians are in control of the post-ideological, image-based politics would do well to watch again the bizarre confrontation over failed asylum seekers. Paxman performed his old routine of repeating the same question over and over – how many failed asylum seekers are in the country? – and Blair flapped and floundered, proving himself utterly incapable of taking control of the political agenda. Fear of saying the wrong thing prevents politicians from stating the obvious, that immigration is not a problem in any sensible terms, never mind making a principled case for a more rational approach to the issue.

Far from being spin Svengalis, cleverly manipulating the media for their own ends, politicians are prisoners of their own lack of imagination, desperately trying to seem in control of an increasingly irrational process. Meanwhile the media are too often complicit in allowing nonsense to dominate the political agenda. The world certainly has changed over the past generation, but a general election seems to be the worst time to understand how or why.

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