Vampire squids, Blair’s bête noire and the rot about yachts

The great puzzle of US politics - which the journalist Thomas Frank tries to unravel in his new book, Pity the Billionaire - is that the agenda is dictated by those who want an even more extreme version of pro-market policies that have patently failed. The position in UK politics, and particularly in the Labour Party, seems almost equally strange.

New Labour is, or ought to be, utterly discredited. Its project to embrace neoliberal values and to bet the house on financial services ended in disaster. Its ex-ministers and ex-aides enrich themselves "advising" companies to which they awarded lucrative contracts. The behaviour of its former leader, with his impenetrable network of companies called Goldrush (or something like that) and his mysterious tax arrangements, is beyond satire.

Yet Ed Miliband is told he must be more like Tony Blair: more sympathetic to business, keener on public-service "reform", less pro-union, more supportive of "aspiration". Moreover, a YouGov poll suggests that Labour supporters buy this view. One in three believes that David Miliband would make the best leader, against fewer than one in eight favouring his brother.

Frank argues that Republican extremists have successfully set the US agenda because they articulate straightforward popular outrage, blaming the country's plight on a conspiracy between elites in Wall Street and Washington that prevents true entrepreneurs from creating jobs and higher living standards for Main Street. It is surely possible for the left to produce its own version of this narrative. Indeed, Ed Miliband has already tried to do so with his talk of "predatory capitalism". But he needs to denounce New Labour, whether in its Blairite or Brownite versions, for its cosiness with the vampire squids of the City.

Blackball of doom

One reason for the Blairites' success in undermining the Labour leader is their continued ruthlessness in media manipulation. In their heyday, they regularly blackballed journalists of whom they disapproved. In evidence to the Leveson inquiry, the Daily Mirror editor, Richard Wallace, recalled that when he first met Blair after his appointment in 2004, he was asked to sack a journalist "who had been a consistent critic". Though Wallace did not name him, Blair's target was clearly my old friend and Mirror columnist Paul Routledge. Wallace - like his predecessor Piers Morgan, who twice received similar prime ministerial instructions - was admirably resolute and Routledge still writes his excellent column.

The Blair campaign against Routledge, who is not so much Old Labour as Jurassic Labour, was unrelenting. Before he began a Westminster gossip column under my New Statesman editorship, a hack close to New Labour entreated me not to publish a man who "debauches journalism". On one occasion, the Blairites got their way. When Rosie Boycott took over as Daily Express editor in 1998, she proposed to appoint Routledge to her political team but apparently desisted when the faithful Blair supporter Lord Hollick, then the paper's owner, made known his displeasure.
Routledge survived triumphantly. But I won­der how many promising journalistic careers were quietly scuppered in this way.

You booze, you lose

The poll I mentioned does have a little good news for Miliband Jr. For some reason, You­Gov's website lists responses not just by voting intention, age, region and social class but also by drinking habit. This shows that favourable ratings for David Cameron and Nick Clegg increase with frequency of alcohol intake, while Miliband gets his best ratings from teetotallers. Several commentators say that his opposition to the coalition's spending cuts, followed by his promise not to reverse them, is too - how should I put it? - nuanced a position for most voters to understand. If we keep clear heads, however, we can all follow its logic.

Sinking feeling

I do not care whether the Treasury or private donors pay for a royal yacht. If anybody can spare £60m, they should be encouraged to spend it on better causes, such as the disabled children for whom the government is cutting support. Michael Gove and David Willetts are paid to look after schools and universities, respectively, not to waste time on suggesting projects to tickle an ageing monarch's vanity.

If some "mark of respect" is required to mark Elizabeth II's jubilee - not that I've noticed anybody apart from myself and Ken Loach disrespecting her - I suggest renaming HS2 as Her Majesty's Jubilee Railway. That would silence the nimbys in Buckinghamshire.

In the can

The Test match between England and Pakistan in Dubai is being played in an almost empty stadium, which spares us the usual camera shots of funny hats and David Lloyd's accompanying coos of excitement. Though many cricket-mad Pakistanis reside in Dubai, most work as sweated labour and can attend only on a Friday, their day off.

This, I fear, is the future of sport, or at least of cricket. The match is being played in Dubai because Pakistan is off-limits since a terrorist attack on a team bus. The TV moguls who bankroll the game don't seem to care if matches are played in the middle of a desert so long as digital subscriptions and ads keep rolling in. Perhaps, to create "atmosphere", they will soon use canned applause, as comedy shows use canned laughter. Or hire paid spectators who cheer and boo when the TV producers tell them to. As the French situationist Guy Debord explained: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an . . . accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?