Sorry I'm not cool, but that doesn't mean I'm no use

A reply to Wayne Hemingway, who accused New Labour of being old at heart
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The Independent Online
SOME people are never happy. Now that Britain's "creatives" are being given the official recognition they've craved for they hate it. First an anarchist singer whose real name is Nigel tips cold water over John Prescott and now designer Wayne Hemingway against "Cool Britannia" and the "middle-aged" values of new MPs like me.

I'm sorry we're not cool enough for Wayne. It's tough to be cool when a typical constituency day includes abseiling down a tower block in a gale for charity, calling the numbers at OAP bingo, trying to help 20 constituents at surgery and line dancing at the Labour Club.

Parliament is worse: stuffy, tradition-bound, infuriating. Wayne should try getting elected and see how good he looks bobbing up and down saying: "Yes Ma'am, no Ma'am and three bags full to the Right Honourable Gentleman."

But this is exactly why Britain needs re-branding. "Cool Britannia" is a media, not a government invention, but I don't mind the tag as long as it means that we're questioning how we see ourselves and how we're viewed by others. The world still sees Britain as a backward-looking theme park of royal pageantry, poor food and stiff upper lip. UK products are viewed as low-tech and bad value. None of this is true of a country that is innovative, diverse and tolerant. Pop music is the biggest single export, worth pounds l2bn a year and Indian restaurants have a higher turn-over than coal, steel and shipbuilding combined.

What is wrong with doing what Ireland and Spain have done and saying: "Hey, we're not like you think we are. We've changed."? The Government is not interested in wrapping itself in a "Cool Britannia" flag. Much of what's cool today will be uncool tomorrow. If I bought one of Mr Hemingway's suits, would it still be cutting edge in two years?

But we should harness our strengths - individuality, creativity and innovation. Forty per cent of important post-war inventions have been British, and that's according to a Japanese survey, but we've lacked the political and economic conditions to make the most of them. This is the first government to take the culture industry seriously. Gordon Brown's first budget provided extra funding for film. It is natural that creative people should be wary of politicians appropriating them. After all, they get their energy from subverting established ways of thinking. But just because we're saying they're important does not mean we're trying to tell them what to do.

The party processes do tend to favour safe and sometime bland candidates capable of wide appeal. But my selection was far from safe. My party selected me - a gay man and a newcomer to politics - because it wanted change.

Wayne says we're failing to represent the millions of 14 to 31s. But those I talk to don't want a government that's hip. They don't want one that makes an ass of itself by telling them how to lead their lives. Just one that gets on with the reforms that might make it easier for them to realise their dreams.

The New Deal to give more young people the opportunity to work and the expansion of higher education - including fees for the better off - are two such reforms derided by Wayne. They might not be cool or sexy, but then again, the things that make a real difference to people's lives seldom are.

Ben Bradshaw is Labour MP for Exeter.

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