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Nick Pickles: Let’s move away from New Labour’s X-Factor politics

Nick Pickles is Director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, and a music photographer whose work can be viewed here. Follow Nick on Twitter.

As David 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.

The Thatcher 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-FactorStrictly the 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 impact.

These illusions 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 electoral success.

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 progress.


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