The Greasy Pole Column from the April 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Just in case he was in any doubt about whether he should have the election soon or wait for a bit, Tony Blair has had some help in making his mind up from the Sun. “It's in the bag Tony. You might as well call the Election now” he was recently urged by that newspaper, apparently on the basis of its less than penetrative analysis of Gordon Brown's budget. Furthermore the Sun, after some dithering, has at last decided about where its readers should put their cross on the fateful day: “Blair gets our support for a second term. Blair has done enough to get our backing” was the message, in appropriately heavy typeface. It was enough to have them punching the air in relief at Number Ten.
Well it would not be the Sun without some crafted, instant impact front page. Remember the word GOTCHA, which exulted over the killing of hundreds of Argentinean sailors on the Belgrano? Remember the crushing request on polling day in 1992, that “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn off the lights”? And the triumphant, if perhaps overblown, claim, after Major's dramatic win at that election, that “It was the Sun wot done it”? By 1997 when John Major, whose victory the Sun claimed to be responsible for, went to the polls amid the near ruin of his government, things were a bit different. For one thing there had been a lot of work from New Labour's leaders, sucking up to Rupert Murdoch and other press barons. “The Sun Backs Blair” was their reward, screamed the front page on 1 May 1997; a few days before that an editorial had encouraged Sun readers with the advice that they needed “a leader with vision, purpose and courage who can inspire them and fire their imagination. The Sun believes that man is Tony Blair”.
Well, as it happened Blair also thought he was that man and since then he has put a lot of effort into keeping Labour locked onto support from the tabloids, using a technique appropriate to the assumed prejudices of their readers. This has entailed the government pushing policies and attitudes which have outraged many of its supporters, who cling stubbornly to the quaint notion that the Labour Party has some connection with protection of the poorest and most vulnerable in society and an historical obligation to stand up for the international unity of all human beings. Ideas like that exist in defiance of the fact that the support of people in the position of Rupert Murdoch has to be bought. There may be some who, apart from needing urgent psychiatric care, believe that Murdoch would allow his newspapers to support a party because its policies would significantly benefit the majority of people in this country. The reality is that he wants to back the winner as the most effective way of protecting and expanding his interests. In 1997 the Sun thought the Tories were “tired, divided and rudderless”—in other words not the kind of government a global capitalist would want to do profitable business with.
Now that he has the Sun on his side Blair has only the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph to persuade. These are rather tougher nuts for him to crack but doubtless he will try; in fact that is what his government have been doing since they came into power. For some years now, carefully watching the circulation figures, New Labour have been busily pandering to the crass prejudices and political neuroses which are regularly stimulated in the Daily Mail, with the result that that paper has steadily climbed the sales ladder. Now the Mail is a leader among the papers for those who are frightened, not of what capitalism actually does to them but of what a newspaper tells them could happen unless they are protected by the more primitive of government policies. Some Labour supporters might have expected their government to stand up against this; in fact Blair and his ministers have pursued issues like asylum seekers, benefit fraudsters and public order offenders with a zeal which has given comfort to people who are suckled on the Daily Mail.
It is unlikely that the Mail will change sides (although after what happened with the Sun nothing, it is clear, is impossible) but it is certain that if this were to happen Blair and his minions would not be put off by the content of that paper. For example on the day it came out for Blair the Sun devoted almost a page to such tedium as : “Randy Owl Savages Dad On Way To Pub”, “Major Can't Stand To Attention: Bungled Army Op Ruined My Sex Life, Claims Dick . . .” If that kind of rubbish did not persuade Blair to renounce the support of the Sun there is no reason to assume that if the Mail also supported Labour he would object to the kind stuff it publishes regularly:
On Crime: “The untouchable. This boy of nine is a thief, arsonist and vandal...Yet he is beyond the law”.On Asylum Seekers: “We didn't need the extraordinary pictures in yesterday's Mail of the luxury that certain Romanian 'refugees' leave behind to come to this country to know that there is no repression in Romania. When will the government stop being so naive about these people, who travel here to wolf down our precious resources?”On Foreigners in General: “William Hague's speech about Britain becoming a 'foreign land' was precisely the sort he should be making close to a General Election”.
The question, however, is what happens when Blair has won the election with the help of Murdoch's Sun and perhaps other papers? Well we have seen the answer to this, in what has happened since 1997. This has had its effect—a perceptible disillusionment among Labour supporters, who regularly complain that they have missed the thrill of Blair's “vision, purpose and courage” and feel definitely uninspired with their imagination anything but fired. Here. for example, is one grumble in the Guardian of 10 March:
“I have been a member of the Labour Party for 37 years and I first wrote to Tony Blair in 1999 expressing concern at the way my party was developing and gave the arrogance of Peter Mandelson as just one example. This letter was not, and never has been, acknowledged . . .”
Perhaps they were wondering, in Millbank, how they could possibly reply to a man who has been in the party since 1963 and is so stubbornly unresponsive to experience as to maintain his membership through the traumas of those previous Labour governments. For example Wilson and his battles with the unions . . . Callaghan and the Winter of Discontent . . . support for the war in Vietnam . . . genocide in Biafra . . . Faced with that kind of discontent, what is Blair supposed to do? Well, he carries on trying to do whatever is necessary to run British capitalism in the interests of its ruling class, which means him ignoring irate letter writers while grovelling to the likes of Murdoch. On Breakfast With Frost on 7 January he spelled it out: “it is a good thing”, he said, for Labour to accept donations from their rich supporters, he was “absolutely proud of the fact that we have got successful entrepreneurs and disaffected Conservatives . . . who support the Labour Party”. What he did not say was whether he was proud of the fact that the people who give that kind of money—or, in the case of Murdoch, give an expensive endorsement in their papers— must expect some return on their investment. It may be the Sun wot will do it but there will then be pay-off time.