Tony’s New Boy Network

Sunday, May 7, 2000 by

t’s a key part of Tony Blair’s obsessive modernity rhetoric that his government has removed all the old barriers, appointments simply because of an old school tie, and power of unelected peers to overpower what a democratically-elected government has done.

It is heavily promoted in high-profile rhetoric such as his “Forces of Conservatism” speech at last year’s Labour conference in Bournemouth. Unfortunately, like most aspects of the New Labour publicity machine, it doesn’t really stand up when you look inside it.

Nick Cohen is a superb writer in The Observer and The New Statesman, his tireless criticisms of the Millbank élite making him one of the most distinctive and iconoclastic voices on the Left. When Benjamin “Oofy” Wegg Prosser, erstwhile New Labour spin doctor, greeted Cohen with the words “I wouldn’t talk to you if you were the last man on earth”, we realised the contempt the New Establishment has for him. In some ways he is to them what a writer like Paul Foot (when his views were still strongly represented within the Labour Party) used to be to the old Conservative Establishment – a man whose power, though not given much expression in the mainstream media, is considerable and a matter of fear for those who would like to “rule” without question and forever.

The use of jaunty, cheery MOR music throughout this programme might have slightly jarred with the content, but it underlined Cohen’s talent for presenting his message in a witty and sarcastic way (rather than simply the Left talking to itself). The use of imagery, from the Houses of Parliament themselves, to the homes of various MPs and judges, concluding with a “tour” of the House of Lords at the end of the programme, worked perfectly. Names like Lord Simon, Lord Macdonald and Lord Sainsbury, loyal Blairites elevated to senior positions without any consultation of the electorate itself, appeared on the screen, and it became obvious for the first time how little the legal establishment has really changed, and how much the friend-of-a-friend mentality has survived, sometimes to the extent of full-scale corruption. Furthermore, we realised the extent of New Labour’s obsession with Task Forces, merely a replacement for the quangos of the Tory government they once claimed to despise. The fact that 98% of these task forces’ members are from private business, and only 2% are from trade unions (there was a sense of amazement and anger simultaneously in Cohen’s voice when he realised this) tells you all you need to know about how far Labour have moved from their past, and the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Renee Fritchee, seemed sadly aware of her impotence in this context.

Use of archive material was also superb – after a clip of Anthony Sampson on Tonight in 1965 referring to the heavy influence of Oxford University graduates on the then-new Harold Wilson government, we saw how unelected peers elevated to high places by New Labour have encouraged investment in Oxford, rather than in the North, because of their strong links with the city. The difference between Sampson’s plummy tones, now sounding very dated, and modern news presentation, is striking, but the fact that his comments can still be applied proves that less has changed than some would suspect. The juxtaposition of footage – Blair’s polemic of breaking down old divides and creating new freedoms next to this – was telling.

Personally, I happen to feel strongly that this programme revealed the depressing truth about the New Establishment – that it is simply the old one in deceptively youthful, fashionable clothing. But even those who show much more sympathy towards the New Labour machine than me will surely have felt themselves momentarily swayed by Cohen’s argument, even if they didn’t agree with it (which is surely the sign of success for any deliberately and proudly biased political programme such as this – to impress those who do not share its views). Cohen is a master at presenting a political point in this form (his style manages to be incredibly dynamic, often sarcastic, but without losing its authority), and Tony’s New Boy Network, in presentation if nothing else, was a classic of its kind.


Comments are closed.