Miliband must resist the evils of spin

by Keith Darlington

As a member of the Labour party for over 35 years, and one who passionately cares about our party, I believe that we need a frank and honest assessment of our period of government and what went wrong.

Ed Miliband is right to set up a review. I hope that this will mean not just reviewing policy but also consider our conduct during our time in government. Some in our party seem to think that all we need to do is tweak some policies here and there and everything will be fine. For me, this won’t do. For at the heart of everything that went wrong during the New Labour years was Blair and Brown’s obsession with spin.

The spin doctor culture, of which Brown and Blair were among the main architects, succeeded in shutting out much sensible debate and enforcing a regime of top-down control at the expense of constructive and open discussion. In the early years of government, there might have been a case for some of this after the chaos in our party in the 1980s – for fear of being off-message and divided. But it went much too far in that it eventually poisoned our image with much of the public who came to see us as out-of-touch, untrustworthy, unprincipled and obsessed with power.

For example, Gordon Brown’s stage-managed style during much of the election campaign gave the impression of not even listening to party members, let alone the public. That is why he made such a mess of things when he met the lady (Gillian Duffy) whom he called a “bigot”. He had lost touch with the public because he had surrounded himself with an unelected cabal of spin doctors in his Downing Street bunker who, through the spin ethos, robotised his behaviour.

Another example of the spin machine working at its worst was when Brown abolished the 10% tax rate to spin headlines the day after his 2006/07 budget. He probably assumed that he would get good headlines by cutting the basic rate of tax – even though this was only achieved by taking it off the poorest paid. He succeeded in spinning good headlines the following day, only to find that voters deserted us in droves the following year when the impact was being felt by the very people we should have been protecting. The longer term consequences were horrendous – not least that we were deserted in large numbers by our core vote who will take much convincing that we are worthy of government again.

Then there was the constant conflict between the spin doctors in the Blair camp, such as Mandelson and Campbell, and those in the Brown camp, such as Balls and Whelan. The factionalism that characterised the Brown/Blair era in using their spinners to brief against each other for 10 years (before Brown became leader) was again extremely damaging for the image of our party. Many people believed – probably rightly – that these jealous rivalries were getting in the way of running the country properly. The new leader should not allow this to happen again. He must make sure that all cabinet colleagues put party and country above personal ego and work together for the good of the country.

There are many other consequences of spin that damaged us – not least the difficulty in conveying the impression that we really believe in anything when we put style over substance.

I hope our new leader will realise that the “spin” approach to politics has run its course and is now likely to do more harm than help. We need a return to honesty and a move away from the point-scoring and photo-opportunity culture which characterised the New Labour spin years. Otherwise we will lose the voters’ trust forever.

Labour had done many good things during 13 years of power, but I am inclined to think that much more could have been done if Blair and Brown’s focus had been on substance rather than spin. I just hope the new generation has learned the lessons of the mistakes made by these men. Otherwise I fear for the future of our party.

Keith Darlington is a member of Ilford North CLP.

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