Steve Richards: How Blair and Brown turned the power of rock star politics to their advantage

When Geldof meets Brown, he is known to embrace the Chancellor for at least half a minute
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The Independent Online

In Britain we are living through a strange and potentially dangerous era where mistrust in elected politicians borders on the deranged. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown focus on Africa there is a wary response. What about Iraq? Is this a leadership bid? The elected House of Commons holds occasional debates on the future of Africa. No one notices. The MPs talk to each other and no one else. Voters turn their backs on democracy and look to the unelected rock stars for leadership. Geldof, Bono, Madonna and McCartney are the new opinion-formers. Interviewers treat them with a fearful deference, and their views are reported with uncritical admiration in the news pages. Paul McCartney was being too modest when he suggested: "We are closer to the people on what needs to be done in Africa." He and his fellow rock stars are not closer to the people. They are leading the people on this one.

The genius of Blair and Brown is to recognise the changing political culture and turn it to their advantage. Blair and Brown are often accused of being "control freaks". The opposite is the case. Never has a government been led by politicians more neurotically conscious of the limits of power. This was demonstrated within the first week of their election in 1997, when Gordon Brown gave away the colossal power to set interest rates. The granting of independence to the Bank of England was as much a political decision as an economic one. Politicians were not trusted to run the economy, especially Labour politicians, so Brown handed over power to others.

In terms of the way politicians are perceived, Blair and Brown also recognise the change in the balance of power. Politicians are loathed and rock stars are deified. Facing up to this new reality, Blair and Brown have co-opted the new rock star leaders to their cause, or allowed the rock stars to co-opt them.

On the whole, the relationship has evolved naturally. When Labour came to power, Brown in particular was committed to addressing global poverty at a time when the issue was out of fashion. As International Development Secretary, Clare Short found that the public spending rounds were easy for her because "Gordon was committed to the cause". Geldof sensed an opening, forming a close relationship with Brown, and later with Blair. When Geldof meets up with Brown on social occasions, he is known to physically embrace the Chancellor for at least half a minute, an unusual experience for Brown and for those observing the close contact. Brown is not famous for his tactile instincts.

But the relationship is complex. Sometimes Brown's entourage despair as Geldof demands more money. One or two have dared to adopt an Irish accent and impersonate his relentless demands: "Just give me another five hundred million and we can solve this..." they chorus mockingly in the Treasury, presumably a form of blasphemy in the light of last weekend's triumph. Quite often, Blair and Brown turn down Geldof's requests. The elected politicians are not totally subservient and Geldof is often left expressing frustration rather than gratitude at the behaviour of ministers.

While Geldof saw an opening in the election of Blair and Brown, the two politicians were also alert to a rare political opportunity. Knowing it is easier to get public opinion on board with the support of rock stars, Blair and Brown placed Africa at the top of their agenda. They are free to be progressive and ambitious without the usual barriers of media and political opposition. Which candidate for the Conservative leadership would dare to criticise Geldof, and by extension Blair and Brown? Geldof and Bono are the new politicians, while Blair and Brown can only be progressive by forming alliances with rock stars. Both of them were thrilled when Bono compared them to Lennon and McCartney at last year's Labour conference.

Behind the protective clothing of rock stardom they are emboldened to tackle Third World debt and acquire a new political credibility. When Bill Gates praised Blair and Brown in Hyde Park on Saturday, there was no jeering from the crowd. It would not have been altogether incongruous if the two of them had appeared together on stage and performed an old hit. Implicitly they were part of the event, as well as being the political recipients of the message. I was reminded of the first mass demonstration in London organised by the Countryside Alliance, when the Government, displaying a characteristically insecure chutzpah, sent a minister to take part in the protest (poor old Michael Meacher was assigned the painfully contorted task).

Now the two sides of Britain's new governing coalition move apart. The rock stars protest as the political leaders decide. I cannot recall a G8 summit where the stakes have been so high. As such, the international gathering becomes an emblematic new Labour event, the product of cautious pragmatism and unusual courage. For Blair and Brown, it is relatively safe politically to lead a popular crusade against global poverty. They have been much less bold about addressing the inequality gap in Britain. Brown hopes that the "progressive consensus" on global poverty can be applied in Britain as well, but it is not easy to envisage rock stars campaigning so enthusiastically: "OK London, let's rock for a higher top rate of tax for the rich, like ... um, me." Helping poorer countries does not involve great financial sacrifices here. It is the least demanding form of progressive politics.

Yet Blair and Brown have taken a big risk too. Normally G8 summits are cosy and meaningless. Blair could have enjoyed the prestige of playing host and had an easy time of it. Instead, he seeks to make progress on thorny topics. He does so in the context of inflated expectations that he has helped to bring about. Acutely aware of the limits of their powers, Blair and Brown blow their trumpets loudly when they make incremental progress. The loud music obscures the complexities. The leaders of the G8 are not as powerful as they seem. The private sector and the governments in Africa have at least as big a part to play.

Yet at the end of the summit there will be more than mere words on Africa, and I suspect in a minor way on climate change as well: much better this than nothing at all. Blair and Brown have seized the moment and made the best of it that they could. Such a conclusion will not have them rocking in Hyde Park, but the elected wing of Britain's new governing class must reach agreements and compromises with other elected leaders. The rock star wing of the new political coalition is freer to make demands and fume to a servile media when they are not met.