Tribune column, 16 June 2000

I have always had my doubts about the journalistic value of the long “backgrounder” news features that have become a staple of the Sunday broadsheets.

More often than not, they are exercises in padding, ludicrously detailed narrative accounts of domestic political events about which we know quite enough already. Even the best of them rely a little too much on unnamed insiders as sources – and sometimes it’s clear that supposedly telling detail is made up by a hack desperate to fill the space he or she has been told to fill.

Nevertheless, I am a great fan of the genre – for one simple reason. The breathless, earnest prose in which Sunday backgrounders are typically written is often unintentionally hilarious, particularly when the subject matter is, as it so often is, mundane. And last Sunday, the Observer came up with a real gem on Tony Blair’s reception at the Women’s Institute conference.

Under the headline “End of the affair for Tony and his women”, Kamal Ahmed and Gaby Hinsliff turned the incident into a drama worthy of a television mini-series. Here’s a taste:

“… At Wembley, the fleet of cars ready to whisk Blair away con¬tained a chastised set of occupants. In the first car, Blair sat with [Anji] Hunter. In the second car came Lucie McNeill, of his strategy team, and David Peel, of the press office. McNeill had spoken with the WI director of communications about setting up interviews with ‘modern looking’ WI members who could give their reaction to the Blair speech. All the plans had to be abandoned. Hunter said she felt personally let down by the WI. Their rudeness was inexcusable.

“At Millbank, an ashen-faced Phil Murphy, the deputy general secretary of the Labour Party, was on the phone to the BBC. . . Staff watched in silence as television screens revealed Blair’s disaster. Many knew it had been a mistake. By tomorrow they would he in action. . .”

OK, I admit it, I inserted “an ashen-faced”. But you get the drift, and there are another 1,500 words in the same vein. All on a story that was not only straightforward and rather less than breathtaking – “Prime Minister heckled at meeting while giving over-hyped duff speech” – but had already filled three days’ worth of papers. It is not quite in the class of the two hacks who managed two years back to make three-quarters of a book out of what Charlie Whelan said in the Red Lion one evening in 1997. But it is quite a feat none the less.

Of course, the WI incident is significant even if it does not deserve quite the treatment that the Observer gave it. It is one of several recent indications that the government has run out of ideas – and that everybody, even rhinoceros-brained Tory ladies from the shires, knows it.

I must admit to being extremely disappointed by this. When Labour was elected in 1997,1 didn’t expect that the new government would usher in the New Jerusalem. For nearly a decade in opposition the party had followed an ever-more cautious, pro-business line in every aspect of policy.

But I did think it possible that a “safety-first” Labour administration might acquire a taste for radicalism. Labour’s commitments on constitutional reform were very much the “unfinished business” from the Kinnock and Smith years, to which Blair was not particularly committed – but I really hoped that, in power, New Labour would come sooner rather than later to see the benefits of a comprehensive overhaul of Britain’s creaking constitutional machinery, including proportional representation for the Commons, regional government for England and a democratic second chamber.

Similarly, on Europe, although it was clear that Labour was badly divided on the key question of British membership of the single Euro¬pean currency, I didn’t think it Utopian to expect that the Labour government would overcome its hesitations and make the necessary leap. Much the same went for the potential for shifts in policy in every area from the welfare state through workers’ rights to foreign policy.

Instead, what has happened is that New Labour has, in almost every field, done the bare minimum it promised in 1997 – then taken fright. The constitutional reform programme has run out of steam and the much-vaunted constructive engagement in Europe appears increasingly chimerical in the absence of any initiative on participation in the euro.

Meanwhile, Jack Straw is engaged in a futile attempt to outdo the Tories in populist illiberalism in home affairs. New Labour today is the party that wants to build more roads, sell more arms, means-test more benefits. Any hope of a radical manifesto for a second term seems to have vanished completely.

It could all have been so different….

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