Looking back on the Blair era, it is striking to note how many of its big themes seem bound up with the new form of democracy that has been emerging in the past two decades, the contours of which are still hard to describe with any precision. Britain’s media democracy still has much in common with the representative democracy it grew out of, but shows less deference to the political class and more to public opinion as refracted through the news media. Elites are less confident, political parties and their ideologies have a smaller role in opinion formation, and the political and cultural preferences of the ordinary citizen are now usually taken as fixed.
Part of the left’s critique of Blairism, set out by Peter Wilby inside, is that it meekly accepted this implicitly conservative new landscape and lost an opportunity to shove Britain in a more social democratic direction. The critique from the right is that while paying lip service to popular preferences, Blairism did shove Britain in a more social democratic direction—but by stealth and media manipulation. This shades into the argument about “spin”—made from left, right and centre—and, of course, the big “lie” over Iraq. John Lloyd argues that the claim of a step change in political deceit since 1997 turns a blind eye to not only Anthony Eden’s lies over Suez, Edward Heath’s over the EEC and Margaret Thatcher’s over Westland, but also the more pervasive low-level ideological lie of the Harold Wilson era. Tony Blair, the slayer of clause IV, has been free of the ideological lie, but perhaps he has had to exchange it for the media democracy one: politicians can lead but only if they pretend to be following.
In Wilson’s day, social class and more settled ideological views gave politics a simpler shape. Notwithstanding Siôn Simon’s “workerist” reading of New Labour inside, those days are gone. As we have seen again in recent weeks with the Blair-Brown squabbles, the decline of ideology means the rise of faction and personality. It now seems that Gordon Brown’s chances of securing the Labour leadership will depend partly on how Labour MPs judge him to perform in opinion polls in the coming weeks, and that in turn will depend partly on whether he can present a more attractive face to the media.