For sale

Blair touts for business

The de-Labourisation of Labour continues

New Labour’s love affair with the free market becomes more passionate with every day that passes. To doubt the sincerity of the Blairites’ ardour or, conversely, to entertain any ‘left’ illusions in New Labour, is to enter the realm of self-deluding lunacy. Yet the remarkable fact remains that come the May 7 local elections many left groups will continue to call upon the working class to vote for Blair - the benefits butcher.   

Meanwhile, Blair continues to cuddle up lovingly to capitalist millionaires and billionaires, including as we know, media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Last week came the revelation of a phone call between Blair and Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, head of the Olive Tree alliance. In this conversation Blair just happened to “mention” Murdoch’s bid for Italy’s leading commercial TV business, Mediaset.

The only interpretation is that Blair is touting for Murdoch and BskyB, under the guise, as an anonymous member of the Blair team put it, of “speaking up for British firms”. (Rupert Murdoch - a naturalised US citizen - is BSkyB’s biggest shareholder, via his Australian media firm, News Corporation) 

Murdoch has courted - ie, purchased - friends in the highest places. He needs such help if he is going to make that next killing. For some time he has been attempting, unsuccessfully so far, to break into the non-English language European market. Murdoch has sought to invest £2 billion of his corporate profits from BSkyB - to comply with Italian media ownership laws - into a controlling 50.6% share in Silvio Berlusconi’s media holding company, Mediaset. Ironically, Berlusconi’s newspaper, Il Giornale, published an article last Tuesday which complained that such a sale to Murdoch would run the danger of delivering Mediaset - which accounts for half of Italy’s entire TV advertising revenues - into “leftwing” hands. It seems like Murdoch’s conversion to New Labourism is not popular in some circles.

The supreme arrogance of New Labour was revealed by its instinctive response to growing criticisms of Blair’s role - an evasive denial. Alastair Campbell, official press secretary for New Labour (and, also, technically a ‘non-party’ civil servant), dismissed the idea that Blair had “intervened on behalf of Murdoch by speaking to Romano Prodi” (Financial Times March 24) as a “complete joke”, “a load of baloney”, “crap” - depending on which account you read.

But the line was hard to sustain. Eventually, we were told that the allegations were true - well, sort of. Then again, Campbell had no choice but to come semi-clean. Last Friday a statement by Murdoch on the ‘Blair-Prodi’ scandal was printed in The Times. It confirmed that Murdoch had asked Blair to quizz Prodi about whether or not the Italian government would allow Murdoch’s acquisition of Mediaset. Murdoch’s mouthpiece went on to describe the use of the UK prime minister as a “perfectly innocent request for information which I would expect from any British business needing help from their government in European-wide investments”. The paper also said Murdoch used the information supplied by Blair in the decision to scupper the deal after Mediaset’s price tag was raised by Berlusconi.

Insider dealing, by any other name. This was how the financial press saw it. ‘Cool Britannia gives way to Crony Britannia’, ran the headline to The Independent’s business editorial (March 25). In damning tones, it thundered:

“[Blair’s] liking for corporate deal making is not tycoon specific. He seems to like all tycoons … The fondness he displays for the aims and ambitions of big business is worryingly wrong headed … Nobody is suggesting that what we are seeing in New Labour is the sort of fully fledged crony capitalism that came to epitomise the now discredited economies of the Far East, but there are enough warning signs here to have cause for genuine concern”.

Pathetically, Robin Cook insisted on Sunday that there was no “cosy relationship” between Murdoch and Blair: “There is no special access for Mr Murdoch. This is the report that has naturally and understandably been put about by Mr Murdoch’s rivals”. He went on to spin the story that Prodi had called Blair, not the other way around. The Labour Party is not “indebted” to Murdoch for switching The Sun’s allegiances during the run-up to last year’s general election, added Cook.                          

It looks like ‘pay back’ time for Blair. Faustian pacts with the devil do not come free of charge, as Andrew Neil, the former editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times, points out. He remembers being told by Blair that “how we treat Murdoch’s media interests when in power will depend on how his newspapers treat the Labour Party in the run up to the election and after we are in power”. As for the Mediaset deal, Neil makes the claim that Murdoch told his most senior colleagues: “I’ll have Tony test the waters” (The Observer March 29).  

It will come as no surprise to learn that Murdoch has been the guest at Chequers, Blair’s country residence, twice since the general election. Blair has also been a frequent visitor to the media tycoon’s London home. And Cook says Murdoch has no “special access”!

From Blair’s perspective, Murdoch is no Bernie Eccelestone, the Formula One boss. After all, at the end of the day, that was just £1m - or £250, 000, according to who you believe. Murdoch offers far more than a measly million quid. He is the gatekeeper to 3.6 million Sun readers - who can be ideologically buttered up to support the New Labour, New Britain project.

Blair’s liaisons with Murdoch, as with Ecclestone before, provide fresh evidence of New Labour’s class orientation - of the social milieu it wants to attract, move in and articulate. Only last week Blair addressed a dinner for Asian businessmen known as the ‘Asian 200’, where he yet again displayed the symptoms which so distressed the business editor of The Independent - ie, a fawning and sycophantic admiration for the rich and wealthy, for “the successful”.

Labour is being de-Labourised before our eyes. It is metamorphosing from a bourgeois workers’ party into something more akin to the great Liberal Party of Gladstone.

It could not be more clear. If you are a wealthy businessman, if you are a millionaire, if you are a media tycoon, if you are “successful”, then Blair wants to know you. Welcome to ‘communitarian’ and ‘stakeholding’ New Britain.

Danny Hammill