Are you a key FOB?

November 8, 1996

An awful lot of people are banking on a Labour government beating a path to their door for advice. An awful lot of them are going to be disappointed. Brian Brivati predicts who will be called and who will be left waiting by the telephone.

If Labour wins the next general election then the largest changeover of political networks for 20 years will take place this spring. What passes for the left in Britain will have access to power and the FOBs (Friends of Blair) will be a force in the land. Left-of-centre academics up and down the country have realised that the chance to influence a government is finally at hand. But this is new Labour and many people who have waited for a majority Labour government for a quarter of a century are going to be disappointed: in the great transfer of power there will be as many losers as winners.

Initially the number of real jobs for the boys and girls will actually be quite small. The number of new influential relationships and "people with access" will be much greater. The wannabes will be in their thousands. As Labour gets into power it is going to need an awful lot of advice. The evidence so far is that new Labour is not particularly interested in advice about how to govern, the "project" is how to win. That will change and the opportunities for some old hands with experience of power will be correspondingly enhanced as we move from theory to practice. Beyond the party, a large number of top civil servants are likely to be retiring over the next year to 18 months, as will a large number of private office people who will be out of sympathy with the new government.

Moreover, 17 years' worth of senior appointments in universities, the media and the management or regulation of the public sector have been made with an eye on the candidates' ability to talk to government. That has meant that Conservative party networks have been a definite advantage. But, come the spring, knowing your way round the Tory party will be worth little compared to being on lunching terms with new Labour.

On a broader stage, knowing Europe has been significant but not central to many of these appointments: but people with knowledge of Brussels will be at a premium. The media too will be drawing up new lists of commentators for a variety of positions.

Friends of Labour will thus have a large number of opportunities. Independent figures with inside knowledge will be worth their weight in gold. They will not be in the government but they will know, especially in the early phase, the general outline of the policy. But watch out for rather spurious claims to intimacy with new Labour that will be emerging shortly. Serious and spurious insiders are important, but so are sceptical academics and a new set of irreconcilables will be wheeled on to condemn the actions of the new government. In the evolution of the post-Major Newsnight panels some disciplines and positions are going to fare better than others. Many people who have based much of their career on what a Labour government would do are going to look pretty silly.

Take sociologists. At first glance the election of a Labour government, that believes society exists, should be good for those that study society. However, the subject is so fragmented that while it should be good for the number crunching-public policy end of things, the phone will not ring for those old Marxists who disappeared into the circular tunnels of linguistic postmodernism a quarter of a century ago. Nor will gay and lesbian studies or cultural studies have much purchase on a new Labour government. Indeed departments of theology or experts in moral philosophy should start practising their soundbites, because new Labour will mean the search for moral justifications for new kinds of social engineering to promote the family: this is going to be the age of Melanie Phillips not Polly Toynbee.

English narrative history did rather well under Margaret Thatcher and will continue to play a role. But historians with hopelessly childish prejudices about Germany will no longer be in vogue. It will be those who actually know something about the dynamics of German history who can expect a call. New Labour will be trying to deal with the real power relations of the European Union. It will need the insights of Birkbeck history professor Richard Evans, rather than the absurdities of freelance historian Andrew Roberts. Beyond this, it is difficult to think of a potential prime minister - aside from the incumbent - with less of a sense of history, especially of his own party, than Tony Blair. However, if he is really heading back to the time before the division in the left between Liberals and Labour, some investment in 19th-century political and social history might be advised.

Cultural studies, along with gender and sexual politics, might be in decline but individual critics will be needed. With little or no substantial change in economic policy in sight, the bulk of our experience of Labour in power will be the cultural and symbolic changes new Labour will make. Clearly, the cultural voices of the 1980s and 1990s will be useless when trying to interpret the meaning of Labour's gesture politics - Brian Sewell or David Mellor will have little to say. The people to watch here are probably historian Robert Hewison (Lancaster) and sociologist Anthony Giddens (Cambridge).

The relationship between science and new Labour is more difficult to predict. At the very top, the chief scientific adviser, Bob May, has just had his contract renewed for five years. A name to watch is Tom Blundell, professor of biochemistry at Cambridge. One of the problems for the science community, according to Steven Rose, who has advised the Labour party on its policy, is that there are too few people with a science background among the Blairites, though Anne Campbell, MP, is rated extremely highly. A possible star who operates at the interface of technology and education is Steven Heppell, at Anglia Polytechnic University. The sexiest part of politicised science, the internet-information highway, seems the most likely to feature in the rhetoric of the campaign and Heppel Ultra Laboratory may well have a role to play.

Real jobs will not go to the economists and political scientists but to those who play the same role in the 1990s as Nicholas Kaldor and Tommy Balogh played in the 1960s: the political economists. An entire generation of left-leaning economists, hardened in the forging of the alternative economic strategy, will be cut out of the loop unless they can reinvent themselves pretty quickly. Except of course for those who run Nexus. This network, set up by an advertising agency executive, Neal Lawson, includes a number of stars of the future including David Halpern (Cambridge) and Stuart White (Oxford). It is also worth watching the journal Renewal, even more than the rejuvenated Fabian News or Dan Corry's New Economy, as Blair's in-house journal, and the role of Prospect can only be enhanced by a new government.

In many ways we will see a generation skipped over in favour of those educated in the last days of James Callaghan and the long years of Margaret Thatcher but who were not seduced by Tony Benn. Dan Corry and David Miliband, Blair's head of policy, are already in place and many others have stayed out of academia and waited for the day in more lucrative bolt holes. Among the older generation those who can overcome new Labour's reluctance to learn from precedent will include David Marquand, warden of Mansfield College, Oxford, and John Kay, the new head of Oxford's management school. More broadly the new government will be looking for its own set of neo-liberals with a slightly more flexible attitude to expenditure and ability to shift the existing resources around to help turn back some of the worst tides of social decay. But wait for the impact of power. A number of academics have argued lately that new Labour will of course be different when it wins and will spend and tax more, thus old-style Labour economists will, after all, be needed. This idea should be treated with caution, after all Labour has always moved to the right after winning power. If it were not for the personal and tribal nature of the changeover, it might save everyone a lot of time, not to mention pension rights, if the existing set of advisers at the Treasury and Home Office simply changed their names to Ed or James and carried on running the economy and increasing prison sentences.

If Blair manages the parliamentary time to introduce even a fraction of the constitutional reform that is promised then the constitutionalists will be in demand. Peter Hennessy at Queen Mary and Westfield College is no longer part of the project, which means he will be able to explain what is going on to the rest of us. A new government will at least mean the end of the trivialising of the constitutional role of the monarchy by the likes of Norman St John-Stevas because we now have a serious left-of-centre expert in Birkbeck's Ben Pimlott - who can of course double up for political and policy analysis.

Broadly, an academic wishing to ride in on the tails of Blair's cassock should present her or himself as a born-again socially conservative neo-liberal communicator who understands the policy process and is prepared to do whatever is necessary to secure re-election. Expertise in windfall profit taxation, knowledge of the operation of electronic tagging and the creation of cheap prison places would be an asset, as would an inability to use verbs, but an encyclopedic knowledge of Clinton's re-election strategy would ensure a place as the next Bernard Donoughue.

Who and what should you buy into if Tony Blair makes it to No. 10?*


Demos, Institute of Public Policy Research, Christian Socialist Movement, Balliol, Essex, Birkbeck, Andersen Consulting, Scotland, former Roy Jenkins supporters, Nexus, Edinburgh graduates, John Kay, Peter Thomson, David Marquand, Patricia Hewitt, John Gray, Gordon Marsden, Will Hutton, Ken Follett, Gavin Davies, Michael Barber, Peter Hennessy, Ben Pimlott, Robert Hewison, Anthony Giddens, Melanie Phillips, integration theory, moral philosophy, graduate repayments, Europe, new as a prefix.


Centre for Policy Studies, Adam Smith Institute, Christ Church, Peterhouse, University of Buckingham, England, former David Owen supporters, Cambridge graduates, Patrick Minford, Michael Oakeshott, Norman Blackwell, Danny Finkelstein, Matthew Parris, Correlli Barnett, Chris Woodhead, Paul Johnson, Alan Clark, Norman St John-Stevas, Polly Toynbee, Martin Holmes, Norman Stone, Andrew Roberts, military history, sociology, socialism, top-up fees, verbs in general.

Brian Brivati is senior lecturer in history, Kingston University.

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