The Blair-Brown 'split' is blinding us to the real stories

The government is ravaged by a sniping tribalism that focuses on... almost nothing
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The Independent Online

It's pitifully sad, but there's a little game I like to play. Whenever I hear somebody waffling on about the divisions between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I ask them to name five issues - just five - where the two men disagree. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Pick any two iconic Labour figures from the Seventies and Eighties and you can immediately think of swathes of life-changing, country-shaping issues - from state ownership to nuclear disarmament - where they violently differed. But what is the Blair-Brown "war" within Noughties Labour all about? Where are the battlefields?

It's pitifully sad, but there's a little game I like to play. Whenever I hear somebody waffling on about the divisions between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I ask them to name five issues - just five - where the two men disagree. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Pick any two iconic Labour figures from the Seventies and Eighties and you can immediately think of swathes of life-changing, country-shaping issues - from state ownership to nuclear disarmament - where they violently differed. But what is the Blair-Brown "war" within Noughties Labour all about? Where are the battlefields?

Most of the differences people come up with between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are fictional - more manifestations of wishful thinking than serious analysis. "Brown is less interested in spin," one senior Westminster journalist says about the man who employed Charlie Whelan. "Brown is less keen on introducing markets into the provision of public services," says one Brownite - totally ignoring the fact that it was Brown who forced through the public-private partnership for the London Tube, while Blair wanted a public ownership compromise. "Brown wouldn't have done Iraq", say many Labour Party members, ignoring Brown's Atlanticism and his persistent statements in support of the war.

Even the obsessive young men who work in Downing Street grind to a halt at just a few small gaps - and the tiny real differences they can identify don't fall along the typical Old Labour/New Labour faultline as presented in the press. Wasn't Blair more Old Labour on the Tube? Isn't Blair's enthusiasm for the euro - where Brown is slightly more cautious - more left-wing? Wasn't Blair's decision to take Ken Livingstone back into the party - against Brown's furious objections - more friendly to the Party's left?

So that's it. The government is ravaged by a sniping tribalism that focuses on... almost nothing. Seventy years ago, Sigmund Freud identified the phenomenon of "the narcissism of small differences". He found that very similar people tend to magnify the tiny differences between themselves and inflate them into life-and-death divisions. And his patients didn't have a dozen newspapers, thousands of journalists and a forest's worth of books devoted to stoking their differences.

It's time we all faced up to the truth. Under a Gordon Brown premiership, all the good things about the current government would still have happened: the significant redistribution of cash to poor families (which I see happening to my own relatives), the passing into law of the entire gay rights agenda, the decision to overthrow three fascist dictatorships, the doubling of aid to poor countries... the list goes on, and it is too easily forgotten. And under a Gordon Brown premiership, all the bad things would have happened too: the sluggishness on Europe and climate change, the ongoing arms sales to tyrannies, and Blunkett, Blunkett, Blunkett.

It is simply a delusion to imagine that the current government would be significantly different under Gordon Brown. To tear the Labour Party apart over this delusion would be the actions of a flock of madmen.

So why is it happening? The media - the eternal whipping-boy - does deserve a large part of the blame. I'll let you in on a trade secret: it's really, really easy to write a Blair-Brown story. There are no difficult policy documents to wade through; no need to go to a school or hospital or prison; no need to even leave the Palace of Westminster. You just find a bit of a gossip and write it up.. Lobby correspondents have become glorified diary columnists. Many senior journalists know more about a quasi-mythical dinner in Granita in 1994 than about the government's entire social policy.

But it would be facile to blame it all on the press. Brown and Blair - and their coteries - endlessly preach to the Labour Party about the need for discipline and to avoid division. Yet the moment the cameras are off, they seek out hacks and take a sledge-hammer to the alliance at the heart of the government.

This is all the more unforgivable because it is based on so little. At least Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn had a dozen good ideological reasons to plot and conspire against each other; what excuse do the current residents of Downing Street have for their playground sulking and bitching?

Because of all this, the real stories - the ones that affect our readers - get lost in a miasma of gossip and trivia. How many people this week noticed the third term commitment - in both Blair and Brown's speeches - to guarantee universal childcare for working mums across the country? This is the missing plank of Britain's welfare state, a massive programme that might be remembered as the biggest domestic achievement of New Labour.

Sorry, I seem to have gone mad and written about policy. I have some real news too. I hear Tony said to Alan that Gordon doesn't like Peter and apparently John agrees, but they're both worried about Charles, who has hated Gordon since he worked for Neil with Patricia and... oh, I give up.

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