What a party - the guests are leaving

Lords and luvvies alike are rebelling as New Labour's 'tough choices' bite. But does Blair care?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN THE early hours of 2 May 1997 a lengthy cast of celebrities joined the cream of New Labour to toast Tony Blair's election victory at the citadel of luvvie-dom, London's Royal Festival Hall. The drink was champagne, the music, D-Ream's election anthem "Things Can Only Get Better". Nine months on, the collective wisdom of the world of arts and intelligentsia is that they haven't.

Last Thursday one icon of the fashionable left, Harold Pinter, was on show at a rather different gathering, a Westminster rally against air strikes in the Gulf, in which the playwright condemned the "shameful and pathetic" relationship between Blair and Clinton. Three days earlier there had been rumblings from the House of Lords as one famous film director combined with a coterie of top academics in an attempt to force new government restrictions on Rupert Murdoch.

There is unease over welfare reforms and union legislation and general disaffection from the arts world over funding. And the anarchist band Chumbawamba made its own inimitable statement last week when singer Danbert Nobacon emptied an ice-bucket over the Deputy Prime Minister at an awards dinner.

From the arts to academia, Britpop to sitcom, the formidable coalition that associated itself with Labour's election victory is fracturing. The Lords' rebellion was the most alarming of the developments for Labour whips as peers of an impeccable Labour (if pre-Blair) vintage took on their own side. Lord Plant, a member of the Labour Party for 40 years, voted against the party whip for the first time in his five years in the Lords, joining others including Lord Borrie. The latter said last week: "People regarded Labour as identifying with four or five important issues - including support for the arts, freedom of the press and a stand against over-concentration of ownership in the media. There is a feeling that, maybe, the Government is not delivering yet."

Is this, as some government ministers were claiming privately last week, a rebellion of 1960s lefties, disappointed not to be in government, and of a few disaffected middle-class luvvies? Another government source was last week not quite so sure. "It was always said," he argued, "that the coalition supporting Blair was a mile wide and an inch thick. Now I doubt if it's only a few hundred yards wide."

Labour's affair with the "luvvies" was always bound to be short-lived, partly because so many were attracted by the prospect of ending 18 years of Tory government. Naturally, Labour took full advantage. Alastair Campbell, now the Prime Minister's press secretary, wrote in New Labour New Britain in autumn 1996 that Noel Gallagher was so deeply moved by Blair's conference speech that "it brought tears to [his] eyes". Alan McGee, boss of Creation Records, said: "He [Noel] wanted to go out and hit everyone with a bowler hat on." Blur's Damon Albarn met Blair and John Prescott and said: "I want Labour to get in. I'd like to think that Britain in the 21st century will care about better health care, and care about its education."

As one Labour Party source put it last week: "A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon because they wanted to be close to Camelot. They were always going to jump off." The rigours and disciplines of New Labour, which delights in controlling the "message" and setting the media agenda, are not naturally suited to the more bohemian world of creative artists. "A lot of them were a little naive in the first place," said one Labour insider, "but the broader point is that it's hard enough to keep the Stepford Wives [the derogatory term for the ultra-loyalist new female MPs] 'on message', let alone a bunch of people who stay up all night taking strange substances and bitching about one another."

THIS PARODY disguises the depth of genuine anger in the arts world. Sir Peter Hall, the theatre director and Labour supporter, has described the Blairite arts policy as "rather worse than the excesses of Thatcherism". Alan McGee of Creation Records, now a member of a government arts task force, argues that it is "all surface with Blair". Melvyn Bragg, disappointed perhaps at not being appointed to a high-profile job by Mr Blair, has also voiced doubts about the Government's commitment to the arts. And Lord Puttnam, one of the closer Blairites, showed his independence by rebelling against the Government over competition laws for the newspaper industry.

The Government feels hard done by. Throughout the election campaign it made a point of eschewing big financial commitments to the arts, or anyone else. The promise was to stick to Tory spending totals. One source argued: "The one bit of the script the arts world refused to read was that. They really didn't believe that restraint on public spending applied to them. They did not listen to Blair saying that we say what we mean and mean what we say." Denis MacShane, a parliamentary private secretary in the Foreign Office, observes: "Luvvies have been whining for more government cash since the Roman emperors hired them. But they're actually getting a good deal from New Labour in terms of tax breaks and a lot of support from ministers in the House of Commons. The idea that the arts would get anything from a Conservative Party now totally in the grip of Philistines, who think wearing a baseball cap the wrong way round is a cultural statement, is laughable."

That said, Mr Blair and his formidable publicity machine share some of the blame. Leading figures in the arts, music and sport have trooped in and out of Downing Street under other administrations, including John Major's. Only Mr Blair has chosen to claim credit for fostering "Cool Britannia", and to have "re-branded" the nation. But some of those pictured on the threshold of Number 10 feel they have been exploited. As Mr McGee puts it: "Of course the likes of me and Noel [Gallagher] are there to be used, especially before the election. But you hope for a little bit more beyond the surface. If things don't improve they won't be getting my money next time".

Across the left more broadly, unease has been growing since the Bernie Ecclestone debacle. That episode broke the near-universal support for Mr Blair and was rapidly followed by the rebellion over lone-parent benefit in the House of Commons, and the more general row over the Government's plans to reform the welfare state. Then came last week's rumpus over competition policy, with Labour peers backing a Liberal democrat amendment that would prevent Mr Murdoch from cutting the price of the Times.

Again the Blairites are dismissive. A senior source said, "Anybody who was brought up in the Labour Party pre-Blair tends to think of Rupert as the source of all evil. I think there was some of that sentiment." The "pre-Blair" tag is code for a group of peers who made their mark under the slower-pace modernisation of Neil Kinnock and John Smith, Mr Blair's predecessor who died in 1994. Of the highbrow Labour rebels, Lord Borrie chaired Labour's Social Justice Commission under Mr Smith, Lord Plant chaired his inquiry in alternative alternative voting systems, Lord Peston was a former education spokesman and Lord Desai is a one-time member of the Treasury team.

But objections did not arise simply from Mr Smith's acolytes. One peer who voted against was Lord Puttnam, a new arrival in the upper chamber who is closely associated with New Labour. A defender argued: "The Blairites call for grown-up politics and sometimes in grown-up politics there is an argument for and against. There is a credible argument both for Murdoch and against him. And Puttnam is from a part of that industry that is pissed off with Murdoch-ism."

Lord Plant, another rebel over Murdoch, exemplifies how concern on the centre-left ranges across a number of issues. He is president of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations and was concerned about the lone-parent benefit curb, and about where Mr Blair's welfare-to-work programme will leave those unable to gain employment, such as the disabled. He is also Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford and confesses to concern over higher-education policies including tuition fees.

LOYALISTS argue that the noises from the sidelines are irrelevant to a government with a majority of 179, which is delivering its pledges on education, health and job creation. But the rebellion of the arts and intelligentsia raises questions about the style and the priorities of the government Mr Blair leads. The Prime Minister has always talked of "tough choices" but, as Lord Plant puts it: "It is now getting to the stage where he is making the hard choices, he's not going to please everybody and there are going to be critical questions. There always were going to be hard choices but people feel they want to contribute their point before these choices are crystallised."

The second issue raised last week concerned another favoured soundbite from Mr Blair to the effect that he would govern as New Labour with no favours. The Prime Minister has underlined his determination to have an arm's-length relationship with the unions, an issue where the focus is currently on plans for union recognition. As one critic put it: "It is one thing to say 'fairness but no favours' to the unions, but dangerous to do so when it looks as if you are extending a helping hand to Rupert Murdoch."

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