Miliband exits the political stage, the commentariat have seized on the
opportunity to pontificate about what it means for Ed, about what might have been
for David, and about their favourite Thunderbirds characters. And yet, alas, I
fear that there has been glaring omission: what does it mean for culture?
And the answer?
Well, in a nutshell, not a great deal. The closest that David Miliband ever got
to a cultural impact was when Rage Against the Machine appeared on stage at
Reading in Guantanamo Bay-style orange suits – although, in that case, I don’t
think the former Foreign Secretary arranged the air travel.
However, I do
think there is something to be said about New Labour and culture. Specifically,
about how culture was used as a political tool, and then became a social
phenomenon, that did more to undermine aspiration than almost any quantity of
Budgets can. What do I mean? Basically, without Tony Blair there would have
been no Simon Cowell.
era did change the culture of the country, the arts included. Whether it was
the Hacienda or the Tate, the idea of success without sweat was alien. Success
was earned and to be celebrated. There was no short-cut, no simple formula.
Acts generally had to work across years and years – often on the pub circuit –
before they got a break.
But now we have X-Factor, Strictly
Voice Dancing with Dogs on Ice, or whatever the next one
is called – and that Thatcherite ideal of plain, simple graft has been eroded.
The modern shows create a dangerous twin illusion: that there is a short-cut to
success, and that short-term celebrity is worth more than long-term cultural
stifle our politics as much as our culture, and they speak to the ultimate
failure of New Labour. What started out as an effort to modernise the country
ended up as a bankrupt force, undone by its inability to speak hard truths and
say that more of the same wasn’t an option. Rather than sweating and slogging,
they took the short-cut of opening the public purse strings to pay for short-term
There are few
moments in politics or culture where you can dramatically change the landscape.
It is often far easier to chase success by dressing up yesterday’s populism as
tomorrow’s achievements – from One Direction to press regulation.
X-Factor is never going to produce a
groundbreaking act, a cultural shift that foretells a deeper social movement.
Yet it is that ambition that our politics still desperately needs. It’s the
willingness to take a risk that saw the Conservative party see off Gordon Brown's
option for an early election and take the initiative to form a Coalition Government
in the national interest.
The problem is
that – in the same way that picking up a microphone is not art, it’s karaoke –
giving a speech is not changing minds. That requires a far more intimate
conversation over time. It isn’t enough to say that winning the ratings war for
Saturday night’s TV, or being the lead item on the News at Ten, is “shaping the
debate” or “winning the bigger argument”.
Simon Cowell has perfected the art of succeeding by
marginally moving the market onto an artist he has already picked in
anticipation of that shift. The illusion of progress is being blinded by the
lights. The greatest test of UKIP, for instance, will be whether they are a
well-marketed response to a perceived shift in demand or a force that can move
the debate and offer more than just tomorrow’s radio filler.
So, as one of New
Labour’s leading lights flies off into the sunset, there is an opportunity to
reassess the legacy of Tony Blair. Perhaps the greatest misjudgement of Blair’s
was that he changed – or tried to change – the country through photo
opportunities and set piece speeches alone.
It is this misjudgement that hangs over modern
politics and has become the basis for the X-Factor industry model. The danger is that X-Factor is seen as
an embodiment of cultural change, rather than akin to the illusion that New
Labour cast over a nation prepared to work but told it didn’t need to. To
expose that illusion is the pressing challenge if we are to move forward.
It means asking whether
the country is not only ready for change, but asking for a different kind
of Government and politics. Rehashing old formulas with different lighting
works for Simon Cowell, but his legacy will not be one of a richer culture nor