Excuse Me, Is This 'The Left'? on the Day Hugo Chavez Hit London, Tony Blair Launched His "Let's Talk" Initiative. John Kampfner Listened to Both Men, and Came to a Few Conclusions
Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)
In the morning it was the boss. At lunchtime it was his nemesis. Or was it the other way round? To spend some time in the company of Tony Blair and then slope off to dine with Hugo Chavez is to see, at first hand, the breadth and depth of the chasm that divides what was once called "the left".
They do, it must be said, share certain characteristics: they are both good at working crowds, skilful on television, masters of the soundbite, and accomplished election-winners. They regard themselves as radicals. They express their frustration publicly at the difficulties of getting things done, seeking to neutralise the judiciary and other institutions they consider to be forces of resistance. And--here is the most intriguing curiosity--they define their politics through their relationship with the United States.
In a traditional hall around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, Blair spent a couple of hours on 15 May in the company of figures from the public, private and voluntary sectors, hearing their concerns about reforming the public services. Floating between the tables, he listened attentively to candid criticisms of government policy. Each discussion was chaired by a Labour MP; several of the current crop are not fans of the Prime Minister.
So far, so reasonable. But we have been here before. Back in November 2003, at another low point, when the folly of the Iraq war was engulfing his premiership, Blair launched his Big Conversation, a tour around the country in which the leader listened to carefully chosen citizens. The initiative was largely derided, but those around the PM insist it did some good. They suggest that he toughened his stance on a smoking ban as a result. They also claim that it gave him a better idea of the strength of feeling about antisocial behaviour.
Fine, I said, but adjustment of clearly defined policy is one thing; changing tack is quite another. What, I inquired of a Downing Street aide, would happen if Blair's interlocutors suggested, for example, a ban on the building of nuclear power stations? The answer I received had the merit of candour, but testified to the extreme narrowness of Blair's political horizons. In areas such as these, the aide said, it was best to hear from the experts. The views of ordinary voters, he added, are sought only where they are involved in the subject. In other words, nuclear is not a public issue. This has never been open to debate. Blair had decided long ago. The energy review had been fixed long ago. To prove the point, he later told the Confederation of British Industry that nuclear was "back on the agenda with a vengeance".
A few miles down the road, a different kind of politics is being conducted. Ken Livingstone's political compass is pointing in an altogether different direction from Blair's, but his parameters are no wider. Guests at a private luncheon in honour of His Excellency Hugo Chavez Frias, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, included sympathetic politicians, trade unionists, actors and journalists. One or two miscreants slipped in: a former Conservative MP now involved in bond issues and the odd executive from the oil giants. …