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14 August 2000

Blair needs real enemies, and fast

Westminster - George Lucas

By George Lucas

In August, you rest. Few would agree more than the Prime Minister, delivered to his Tuscan palace, where the popular impression is that, Gone with the Wind style, servants will mop his brow. But as Blair struggles for sleep on fevered Italian nights, he will most likely be menaced by Women’s Institute demons and, worse, memories of a stunningly dis-respectful Question Time audience. Yes, he is on holiday and, temporarily, the living is easy; but when he returns later this month, the conference season will begin, the TUC will gather and . . . Oh! Those nightmares are teeming again . . .

Yet what Blair needs is not more friends, but some carefully chosen enemies. Political friends, as Margaret Thatcher found out, invariably disappear in crises and are of scant use to anyone. Political enemies, however, are a precious elixir, a special Chris Tarrant-inspired lifeline for the ambitious.

Robespierre thrived on beheading the bourgeoisie. George Bush Sr saved his patrician neck in 1988 by allying his electoral opponent, Michael Dukakis, to brutish-looking murderers such as Willie Horton. Nixon thwacked his way through early opposition by hunting communists. Since before Mark Antony, master politicians have savoured the selection of the right adversaries.

The anatomy of such politics is straightforward. First, the enemy must be unpopular for inflicting lasting injustices on activists and voters alike. Second, the villains must be tangibly beatable. Third, they must be separated formally from – albeit identified with – the other main party.

By 1979, the excesses of many trade unions had left them vulnerable – whereas, in 1974, millions felt that striking miners deserved better. In 1945 and 1964, Labour triumphed amid disgust with a ruling class of seemingly arrogant toffs. In the early 1980s, Thatcher scored against not just shop stewards, but also imperious local housing authorities and UK-cash-guzzling EC partner nations.

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Thatcher was, as her PR guru Tim Bell says, stupendously lucky in having such colourful fall guys to flay – such as Leopoldo Galtieri, who led the 1982 Falklands invasion. After 1985, her luck changed. Unions largely lost their scare value. As 1987 Tory broadcasts reran tired, grainy pictures of the 1979 winter of discontent, cynical voters giggled. Bell explains how he and others “floundered around wondering what dragons were left to slay”. For Labour, the dragons were obvious during the 1996-97 period – the fat cats and sleaze merchants. The GMB union even named a pig after Cedric Brown, the amply remunerated boss of British Gas.

Life is different now. Whisper merely Brown’s name to party officials and you get looks like those that the socially ambitious give to childhood mates who mention mudpie-throwing pranks in front of newer friends from the local country club. The campaign was “time specific”. Now, we should discuss more serious things. We must be statesmanlike.

Wrong. Blair needs new enemies – and fast. Although William Hague’s dismal ratings may guarantee their party a second term, many Labour people now display a kind of anguished tic whenever anyone mentions the next election.

No one quite believes that botched attacks on hereditary peers (not wholly exterminated), fox-hunters (as yet let off scot-free) and asylum-seekers (whose roughing-up jars with even modern Labour ideology) will help results. Indeed, some MPs argue that the notion of enemies other than disembodied targets such as poverty smacks too much of Bennite days for comfort. Plausible arguments – but those generalised attacks on the forces of conservatism devalue them.

Voters would turn out more readily if they felt that the party was as furious as they are about schools that are still crumbling and hospitals where services fail while well-paid senior managers and efficiency wonks sweep past like Soviet-era politburo members in annually renewed company fleets. They would be keener if Labour appeared to share their anger at railways that rarely function properly – and where, with senior bigwigs far removed, the anguished faces of teenage staffers cower behind reinforced screens to announce further train cancellations. They would especially be more enthusiastic if they felt that ministers ever sufficiently leave their lives of conspicuous plutocracy to have the faintest idea of the daily hells that the new Britain still delivers to most of its tax-paying punters.

Without such shared feeling, it is hard to imagine, given the non-arrival so far of spending review billions, how such dis-illusion can be countered. Blair’s bridge-building with apparently everyone except the Tory party may seem good consensus politics, but it sacrifices a vital array of political weaponry. The tendency to fudge in hotly debated issues such as pensions, working conditions and the minimum wage has been a catalyst for Blair’s recent plunge in voters’ esteem.

It is unlikely that attitudes will change. Labour’s electioneering will most likely focus on bringing out old props, such as film clips of Michael Portillo on the night of his 1997 defeat. It will also try to plant mortal fears of savage Tory cuts in promised spending.

But these are paper tigers, not real dragons. Recent history shows that British prime ministers who have held on beyond four years before calling an election have failed to get back with a working majority.

Time is short for Blair to add vital spice to his re-election project. Hague’s misjudgements – highlighted again by lunatic, student bar-type boasts about his drinking capacity – will probably give Labour a second term. But Hague cannot be Blair’s only enemy, and the project must take on genuine demons.

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