Thursday, March 29, 2007

On Charles Clarke

Today's Guardian features an extract from a speech Charles Clarke gave last night to the Royal Television Society. In it Clarke talks of the media's relationship with New Labour and describes the last decade as being "one of media pomp, in which the New Labour government has too often colluded." Little to argue with there you might say, but such observations don't usually tumble from the mouths of cabinet members, former or otherwise. Perhaps his words are those of an embittered reject seeking to stick the knife in wherever he sees some bare flesh. Nonetheless, his words throughout the snippet published ring true.

"The practices which were necessary as we came to power have been extended and developed in ways which have ultimately damaged the political process and trust in politics and politicians.

Media power has changed government policy on important matters of substance. I have no doubt that media attitudes and threats have been decisive in influencing British attitudes to the EU, in inhibiting reform in the criminal justice system, in influencing taxation and policies towards the media itself."

Undoubtedly. Leaks, good-day-bury-bad-news scandals, tabloid criminal reform all serving to reinforce his point. But wasn't it ever thus? I'm not sure to be honest. My memory does go back that far. But the polished stage sweetheart we see today in David Cameron certainly wasn't inspired by John Major. Not in a positive sense at any rate.

"But, just as many of us in politics look at the media world and urge you to understand its wider responsibility to society, we in politics have to do the same. Labour's greatest need, if we are to win the next general election, is to assess openly our successes and failures in government. I am certain that we will need to reinvent ourselves. We cannot say to the British people that a vote for Labour is simply a vote for more of the same. And there is no way to do that without talking openly about the issues."

From the first letter to the final full stop, this makes sense. Many of the comments which followed Clarke's piece accuse him of simply being interested in getting Labour re-elected. Well, du-uuh. Of course he is, hardly the most reprehensible charge, but it doesn't diminish the truth of what he says. Wherever he'd act on it in a meaningful way and continue to do after achieving his aims is another matter. Where I think Labour has failed (even if Clarke doesn't) is in the erosion of party unity. There will always be factionalism and competing cadres but New Labour has been defined in my view by the cult of personality. The panic about Blair's departure and the rise of the Blair-a-like David Cameron (sans the policies, natch) are testament to that. Here's to party reform, but reform that places the party as a whole above any one minister.

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