Magazine article The Spectator

Now Tony Blair Begins His Final Mission: To Shackle the Media

Magazine article The Spectator

Now Tony Blair Begins His Final Mission: To Shackle the Media

Article excerpt

Never has Labour stood so high, or the Tories so low, as they do this weekend. To gain just 250 seats in the local election results was a catastrophe for the Tories. Look back at the 1980s, when Neil Kinnock's moribund Labour rarely failed to gain 45 per cent or so of the vote in local elections. The Conservatives staggered to 35 per cent. Where they go from here is obscure.

Even now many Tory MPs do not fully grasp the dimensions of their problem. It is possible that, for the first time since the collapse of the Liberals, we are witnessing the death of a great political party. Historians may yet look back at William Hague and the 167 seats he secured in last year's general election, and marvel at how well, not how badly, he did. Look at the scale of the problem: vanishing membership, negligible support among young voters, an organisational structure that has collapsed across vast tracts of the country. Part of the problem is failure of will. The political class which sustained the old Tory party still exists. Indeed, thanks to the resurgence of the City of London, it now enjoys greater wealth than for 100 years. But all that money, talent and energy goes into private life, domestic consumption and, increasingly, the purchase of private estates in Continental Europe. Only the anti-hunting debate seriously animates people of this type. With a few luminous exceptions, of which lain Duncan Smith is an outstanding example, this class has opted out.

The political analyst Peter Kellner last week raised the question: if the Conservative party did not exist, would it be necessary to invent it? It is not clear that it would. Nor can the Conservatives easily reinvent themselves. There is no great symbolic gesture available, like Clause 4. There are no half-baked policies to be rejected with a great show of virtue, like unilateralism or nationalisation. The New Labour modernisers could see their path through the wilderness. For lain Duncan Smith the problem is more insidious. The rules of national debate are skewed against him. When the health spokesman Liam Fox proposes reforms to the health service, he is said to be bent on the destruction of the NHS. When Alan Milburn, a few months later, produces the same sort of policies, he wins praise for bravely confronting the publicsector unions. When Tories like Ann Widdecombe talk about asylum-seekers, they are racist. When New Labour does the same in far more robust language, it is praised for tackling the problems that exercise the voters. In this context, the Labour chairman Charles Clarke's article in last week's Tribune magazine should be studied with care. Bear in mind that big New Labour policy-changes are often associated with a change in language. Thus 'spending' became 'investment' and last week 'immigration' became 'migration'. In an interesting foray into new territory, Clarke writes that 'migration' can be `destabilising and not sustainable'.

This linguistic sophistication is one example of how New Labour sustains its hegemony. Like a good general, Tony Blair moves on. Having swept aside opposition, New Labour is now putting down roots. The Prime Minister is at last trying to put into effect a longstanding objective, the creation of a press that will report the government within its own chosen parameters. Two steps were taken along this route last week. First, the government used the draft Communications Bill to sweeten Rupert Murdoch. …

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