Terence Blacker: It's time New Labour learnt how to laugh

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The Independent Online

Peter Mandelson laughed this week. Unusually, it was not the normal silky political laugh, emitted to deflect a question or express good-humoured contempt of an opposing point of view, but the real thing, involuntary and unforced. It might have been heard above the hubbub at the bar of a golf club when a new asylum-seeker joke was doing the rounds.

He was on the Today programme, and was enjoying himself. When asked any question relating to the government, he breezily pointed out that (these are not his precise words) he was now so grand and international that he was unable to comment on (these are his precise words) tittle-tattley questions about the British political scene. James Naughtie told him that his name had come up during the last Prime Minister's Questions with Michael Howard, that when Tony Blair had been asked whether he had achieved his objective of making the Labour Party love Peter Mandleson, he had replied that there was "a lot done, a lot left top do." Hearing this quip, Peter cracked up, as if it was the funniest thing he had heard in years.

Such unguarded moments can illuminate the ways in which those in power think and behave more effectively than any ministerial appearance on Question Time. They remind us that behind the scary android features of the European Commissioner lie feelings, perhaps even a sense of humour. Go with that thought and soon one can start believing that the Margarets, Hodge and Beckett, sing Abba songs in harmony, that Jack Straw nurtures a secret ambition to appear on Strictly Come Dancing, that Hazel Blears can do a hilarious send-up of John Prescott talking to the Queen.

It is not an easy mental process, imagining those close to government into near normality, but it is one that, at this time of the year, they work hard to encourage. So this week Cherie Blair allowed herself an unbuttoned moment on the Radio 4 books programme A Good Read. She has been unfairly treated in the press recently, is a keen reader and a good communicator. Letting the cheerful, non-political side of personality out for a public gambol must have seemed an excellent idea.

And so it was, for the most part. Her fellow-guest, the novelist and screenplay writer Andrew Davies, chose as his good read Alison Lurie's Love and Friendship, a campus novel written and set in the 1960s. While Davies and the programme's presenter, Sue MacGregor, found the novel's perspective on gender, marriage and infidelity had borne the test of time, Cherie Blair thought differently. The thing was terribly dated, she said. The woman protagonist did not have a job; much of the professional interest of the novel surrounded the work of her husband.

It seemed a slightly odd criticism of a book written over 40 years ago, that it failed to reflect the values of 2005, and, unsurprisingly Mrs Blair's own choice was more contemporary, Ian McEwan's Saturday. When Andrew Davies suggested that the novel's central character, a thoroughly modern man who did the shopping, loved cooking and, as Davies put it, "ticked all the boxes", was also a bit of a bore, Cherie Blair's view was that it was precisely those domestically evolved values which made the book worthwhile.

It was a perfect New Labour critique. What matters, in art as in life, is how we should all live now. The shiniest adjective for the new orthodoxy is "relevant", the most irreproachable verb is "to modernise". The reason why one novel disappointed and the other satisfied lay in the extent to which they reflected contemporary priorities. Here Mrs Blair is in perfect step with her husband's minister Charles Clarke who, in an earlier Good Read programme, confided that he had no time for The Great Gatsby since it told us nothing about the way we live now.

This way of looking at the world, if not actually an indicator of mental dysfunction, reveals a depressing, willed curtailment of the imagination. It is not unusual - university lecturers, after all, are happy to tell students of English that D H Lawrence is not worth reading since his attitudes to women are so outmoded - but it is crushingly reductive and utilitarian. It is as if, reading novels by Lurie or Fitzgerald will encourage women to stay at home or fail to make a valid contribution to Gordon Brown's economy.

The attitude may help to explain that strange sense of distance one experiences when hearing the latest pronouncement from Patricia Hewitt, Alastair Darling or Ruth Kelly. There is a lack of normality: it is as if a very sophisticated form of extraterrestrial life had perfected the sound and look of life on earth, but the circuits conveying humanity had yet to be successfully completed.

There is a direct connection between imaginative life and a genuine sense of humour, and it was for this reason the Mandelson laugh had one staring at the radio in amazement. Just for a second there, he could have been human.

Until recently, the ruthless elimination of anyone from government who fails to conform to the New Labour prototype was not an electoral problem: there were rather less effective robots on the other side. Now, perhaps briefly, the Conservatives have charm on their side. They even, in the unlikely person of Boris Johnson, have wit. The androids in government had better start working the parts of their circuit that communicate imagination, humour and normality, before it is too late.