Election '97: Bullying will be a hard habit for Blair to kick

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Indy Politics
With a campaign no deeper in its content than the layer of pancake that Tony Blair wears for his press briefing each morning, the Labour Party has had to rely on its powers of intimidation to persuade the media of its electabilty. These are considerable. Hardly a day has passed in the last five weeks without one of the trio of campaign managers - Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Dave Hill - calling an editor to deliver a mixture of wheedling abuse and bald threat. "It's poison," a senior broadcaster said: "Utter poison. If they're like this now, what the hell are they going to do when they get into power?" The answer is almost certainly: more of the same.

Celebration will shift in a blink of an eye to triumphalism when Campbell finds himself at the centre of the power, with many of his former colleagues from the press in his sway. And Mandelson and Hill cannot be expected to reform their habits of the last three years, or to let their skills of manipulation and news management slide. They have grown used to getting their own way, addicted to the late-night call that hints at permanent exile from New Labour's favour; of excommunication from the inside track; and above all at the ridicule that will be heaped on a journalist by colleagues, if he or she does not see it their way.

"You'll look c---s if you go for the Lib Dems" was how Alastair Campbell put it in a telephone call to a senior figure on the Guardian 10 days ago after he had heard that some there thought the paper should endorse Paddy Ashdown. The call came two hours after the meeting had ended, which shows there are people willing to betray their own organisation in order to ingratiate themselves with the new political establishment. For journalists, an incoming government represents new supplies of patronage in the shape of stories, advance tips, and fleeting access to the cockpit of the revolution. They are as susceptible to this sort of flattery as any of the unlikely business grandees that have recently stepped before the cameras to reveal their rebirth as Blairites.

There is an atmoshpere of fierce invigilation about the Mandelson-Campbell- Hill operation, which is, perhaps, understandable, given the press bias of the past. No dissent, however small, goes unreprimanded or unchallenged: on the evening that ICM's "rogue" poll was published last week, Adam Boulton, Sky TV's affable political editor, discussed the implications of a 5 per cent Labour lead on air with several journalists. Within a few minutes of the programme ending, the man from the Guardian was being blasted by Millbank tower. "It's as if you wanted them [The Tories] to win" rasped the spin doctor.

The roughest bullying is directed at the electronic media which has statutory duties to be fair. These are frequently invoked by Mandelson and his familiars who try endlessly to fix programmes in advance. During the second week of the campaign Robin Cook, Labour spokesman on foreign affairs, agreed to appear in a Newsnight discussion about Europe with Jeremy Paxman on condition there would be no other Labour members on the programme. Malcolm Rifkind, on the other hand, was happy to sit in the same studio with Eurosceptics Sir George Gardiner and Teresa Gorman. Half way through the discussion Paxman revealed Cook's conditions, and introduced two filmed interviews with Labour doubters. Cook began to fume and blew his top with the editors as the credits rolled: never in all his life, he said, had he been treated with such contempt, etc, etc.

The special skill that Millbank tower has introduced from American politics is one of denial. This is distinct from rebuttal because it involves no argument whatsoever. It is much cleaner to deny the existence of a thing than to engage in argument about it. So it was last week when Tony Blair made a slip about Value Added Tax and Radio 4's The World Tonight programme began to prepare an item on the inconsistency. Labour's reaction was to refuse to comment because there was nothing to discuss, which is an oddly effective way of manipulating the agenda into a small area that is agreeable to New Labour's message.

Regular attenders at the morning briefings in the last four weeks will know this is the way Labour is playing things from Tony Blair down. At last week's press conference, it soon became plain that Blair would not engage in argument. Behind him was a board that stated - as do Labour canvassers on the doorstep - that state pensions will be abolished during a fifth Tory term. Challenges came from Michael Brunson of ITN and the gentle spin bowlers of the BBC. Each time Blair lifted his bat to let the ball pass, then played a dazzling stroke at the delivery he chose to play. I counted five refusals on the issue and at the briefing next day, a further three. So at the end of the week the slogan and the allegation about state pensions remains intact. This is why Tory spin doctors are looking so depressed: one reason they're losing the battle is because they can't fight it.

It is an irony that a Labour campaign which advocates the devolution of power from the centre is being run by a group of calculating dirigistes who show no sign of relaxing their control over the party's membership and its views. As became plain from the leaked Labour War Book, the campaign is the result of a chilling process of reduction. It has been honed, scheduled, stripped bare of inconvenience, and now looks as if it will propel Tony Blair into Number 10.

What will they do with power when they get it? There may be, as one commentator has proposed, a kind of velvet revolution in which the change in Britain will be greater and more immediate than the Labour manifesto suggests. In other words the manifesto has dissembled by omission. Alternatively, there may be nothing more to a Labour government than what we have read and heard since Easter Sunday. Whatever happens, the refusal to debate has diminished politics because, next time round, the Tories will have learnt the trick of what the New Yorker's Joe Klein has called the "magisterial vacuity" of New Labour.