Election '97: Smile, grimace, - just follow the doctor's orders

Things are not what they used to be. Harry Porter watches Blair's team grapple with their brave new world
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Indy Politics
Here is the replay of Labour's manifesto launch; Mr Blair moves to the platform, stands behind the Big Four of the Shadow Cabinet and holds up the manifesto which bears an unsmiling portrait of himself. He does not smile.

The Big Four are unsettled; should they smile, put their hands on the table and look gravely at their leader, or what? Rapid eyes-left from John Prescott indicates to Gordon Brown, Margaret Beckett and Robin Cook that they should fold their hands and look confidently out at the cameras.

Then Mr Blair walks to the lectern and uses up his ration of one brief business-like smile. What should the Big Four do now? Each of them knows that Peter Mandelson is skirting the back of the hall like some despotic Broadway choreographer. They are anxious to please him. Equally, they appreciate that it is difficult to gaze at Tony for long periods without looking like a coach party of Fen people on their first outing to the capital. As was evident at the launch, expressions of political rapture and half- wittedness are only a degree or two apart.

The question of smiling is important to New Labour, but there is a difficulty because no standing instruction can be issued by the party spin doctors. Focus groups have shown that the leader's smile prompts ideas of smarminess among women voters so he must restrict his rictus. On the other hand, Gordon Brown's usual expression suggests that he is under terrible pressure, which means that he should smile more. Cook and Beckett have to watch the Fen tendency.

It's a small point, perhaps, but it catches the tautness of these occasions. There is a sense that New Labour's great spin machine in Millbank Tower, with all its awesome powers of co-ordination, rebuttal, news fixing and fact suffocation, has completely taken over the party so that nothing is left to chance, no gesture goes undirected. The machine has assumed all the party's functions, researching the public's inner desires, devising and propagating policy, and, now the election campaign has begun, patrolling the media and party members alike for signs of deviation. Even by American standards it has produced a remarkable, well engineered consent, and yet it is also responsible for the total absence of self-determination among New Labour politicians, or of displays of individual judgement and character.

Both major parties spin incessantly and draw on the data banks of their Excalibur computer systems to refute each other's claims, but of the two, Labour is relying more on skills of presentation and news management. For one thing it is much easier to spin intentions than it is a record of performance because the latter is inconvenienced by facts and people's memories of them. The main point, however, is that Labour is still unsure of itself. It has travelled a great distance politically in the last three years and it cannot rely on individual instincts about what is and what is not appropriate policy for the new party.

Last week, for instance, we had Mo Mowlam, the party's Northern Ireland spokesperson, take it upon herself to blow up the bipartisanship approach to the province. She was allowed to get away with it by the Tories and was praised fulsomely in the New Statesman, but when the interest in her remarks waned the spin doctors went the other way; Mo had got it wrong, they said, and this was compelling evidence because it shows the dominance of the machine over individual political judgement, or, in this case, a gamble, even when it is against the party's interest.

The machine's logic is not always apparent. Earlier in the week, before the huge poll lead was established by Gallup, the party was briefing that its private poll results were nowhere near so good. Millbank Tower let it be known that the lead was not 20 per cent, but somewhere between 12 and 14 per cent, spin aimed entirely at Labour complacency. For one brief moment the Conservatives were spinning up and Labour spinning down to reach consensus figures. Then truth intruded.

A more conventional operation followed the decision by Labour to pull out of the televised debate with John Major, which of course had been Labour's suggestion in the first place. Gradually the party came to realise that the only person who had anything to gain from a debate was the Prime Minister, who had been looking rather self-confident last week. Blair had to escape the date with as little loss of faith as possible, so Mandelson and Alastair Campbell hit the phones with a variety of plausible explanations about the impossibility of Conservative demands and the difficulty of including Paddy. The unadulterated truth of the matter is that the machine's risk assessment circuitry had crashed. For once, Labour had screwed up.

All of which brings us to the miraculous figure of the Prime Minister, who appears to have not been told about the Gallup and MORI results. Just one commentator at the launch of the manifesto on Wednesday - the playwright David Hare - saw him as the broken reed capable only of "passionless mutterings". The rest, however, were grudgingly impressed. What had happened? Had the artist's clear vision defied all Sheila Gunn's spin about Major's appetite for electioneering, or had he succumbed to his taste for the dramatic end-game? On balance it was probably the latter because as the polls get worse Major becomes eerily relaxed and, although almost everyone hates to admit it, amusing in an odd sort of way.

It is one paradox among many in this campaign which has produced a scintillating picture of British politics. Who could have imagined that the Liberal Democrat party, which was born in reaction to the extremes of the Eighties, would now find itself the true party of the left? Who could have predicted that Labour's poll lead of 20 points would be achieved not by contrasting its policies to the Conservatives', but by selective imitation. And who would have guessed that Labour's greatest allies in Campaign '97 would be two aggressively capitalistic foreign nationals - Rupert Murdoch and Mohamed al-Fayed, neither of whom will be able to vote in the election?

Things are not as they used to be. The familiar certainties and reliable givens are gone, which accounts for the very important part spin will play in the next four weeks. For Labour, the Big Mo - the big momentum, not the Northern Ireland spokesperson - has apparently arrived bang on schedule. But it is an indication of the party's tiny inner voice of self- doubt that its members still cannot smile without first thinking whether they have been told to.

If you want a characterisation of the first week, New Labour has all the edgy calm of somebody who has just emerged from a rehabilitation programme, while the Tories are on the last bender before entering one.