Bands gotta split, politicians gotta plot - can anyone tell me why?

Tony Blair is not a tribalist. That is what distinguishes him from so many of his Labour colleagues

ON MONDAY, idly flicking on to Ceefax, I was alarmed to discover that Boyzone - the all-male singing and pectoral-display band - were thinking of splitting up. Alarmed, because this would constitute irrational and self-destructive behaviour. Only one member of Boyzone - the blond, soft- eyed Ronan Keating - has any individual profile whatsoever; the rest are just abs on legs. As long as they stick together they are - for the moment - chart-toppers (or whatever you call it these days). Otherwise - ta- ta.

Ceefax could, of course have got it wrong. Having recently spotted headlines such as "Jailed immigrant faces deportment" (Ah, the old book on the head routine, I presume) and "Dutch drugs horde seized" (What? Including their horses?), I no longer quite believe everything I read on television. But there was something about the story that rang true. It's a matter of raging ego; bands gotta split - no matter how silly this may seem. And politicians gotta plot, even if there isn't much to plot about.

So, as the Prime Minister's New Year message of tough times ahead, wafted to us on the soft Indian Ocean breezes from the Seychelles, some of his colleagues (or their minions) were letting it be known that the days of Tone Alone were numbered, and that they were very much going to be listened to in 1999, thank you very much. Variously, there would be curbs on spinning, less lovey-dovey stuff with the Lib Dems and - most important of all - a return to more "traditional Labour values", as backbencher Andrew Mackinlay put it in this newspaper yesterday. Those supposedly endorsing such a stance were said to be Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Gordon Brown and John Prescott.

On the day that Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson did their double- resignation act, all of us pundits queued up to say how the Government had been damaged, without really specifying what that damage was. It was possible that key middle-class voters would become suddenly disillusioned with Labour, and return to the Tory fold. But what we rather sensed was that the Mandelson departure would knock some of the stuffing out of Blair, and diminish the leader's authority among his barons. Simultaneously nervous and emboldened, they might begin to bite on their harnesses. They are, after all, grand men and women now.

It seems odd today - after a decade of Tory infighting and of Kinnockian discipline - to recall that Labour was traditionally the party of mutual loathing. The Left has always draped its personal feuds and competing ambitions in the scarlet veil of ideological and political difference. The old joke about the two Trotskyist sects, who meet for a Unity conference and split into six, was substantially true. Certainly, whenever I feel sad I turn to the websites dealing with the catastrophic implosion of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, and all my problems fall into perspective. Another reminder is Ken Livingstone's exuberant and constant disloyalty to his party leadership, which - happily - adorns this newspaper week after week.

The trouble is that there is precious little ground for the kind of political division that we have seen in the past. Not much veil, if you like. The economic programme of the Government, for instance, is Gordon Brown's. He is the one who has balanced the demands of prudence and enhanced expenditure on social programmes. So when there is talk of a return to Keynsianism, does that imply a revolt by the Chancellor against his own policies, or merely a way of dressing up existing and agreed priorities?

Is there somewhere a taste within the Cabinet for other old Labour verities, such as a massive extension of public ownership? I thought not. Or how about a redistribution of national wealth using, principally, income tax? Most of the putative plotters are probably happier with the Brown method of stealthily taxing the middle classes in ways that they do not notice, nor attempt to avoid. The cause of egalitarianism is best served, they would all agree, through vast improvements in education and training. I hear few influential voices raised against Dobson's NHS, Straw's Home Office, devolution, House of Lords reform, the Good Friday Agreement or any of the substantial policies of the Government. Or indeed, even the presentation of those policies.

Which leaves us with those other, more atavistic, anxieties concerning changes to the voting system and the realignment of British politics. One of the themes of the last part of 1998 has been a desperate attempt to discover an ideology to explain today's world, and to help mobilise different armies for its change. Intellectuals such as Will Hutton have called for a more overtly social-democratic and interventionist stance, while equally clever people, such as Michael Ignatieff, have espoused a contrary liberalism. Between them they have embarked upon an attempt to persuade us that we can be one thing or the other - but not both.

Neither of them convinces me. I am not at all sure, were you to put them in separate small rooms and invite them each to write an election manifesto in human-being language, that you would be able to tell which was which. The truth, I think, is that, for the left-of-centre there is no catch- all ideology on offer. What we have instead is a pick'n'mix progressivism, which broadly agrees on the need to modernise the state and to devolve decisions, desires government to be more open and more ethical, that believes an objective of government policy should be to ensure that citizens do not get left behind, that abhors discrimination and that believes that human beings are social animals. Now, this is not a "position", it is a continuum, along which many of us are to be found (though we may shift along it from time to time). The "Third Way" is simply an attempt to find a name for this continuum.

This is bad news for those who prefer the security of a tribe. There are many in politics who are natural joiners, part of whose self-definition comes in being able to say who they are not: that they are with the lot who put bones through their noses, and that they are against the rabble from the next valley who wear penis-gourds. Never mind that they all worship the same gods and eat the same monkeys.

Tony Blair is not a tribalist. That is what distinguishes him from so many of his Labour colleagues. He does not believe in the mystical superiority of his team over the other lot, and I think that is why he now leans, intellectually, towards electoral reform. It is also what the voters (quite rightly) like about him. Never mind all the grinding and hip-thrusting of the others, Tony Blair is to Labour what the winsome Ronan Keating is to Boyzone. And insofar as what the other band members have to offer is different to what Ronan has, the fans don't want it. Which is why, consulting Ceefax just now, I see that Boyzone have just denied rumours of a split.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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