News that Labour is set to change its campaign strategy, moving Gordon Brown more centre stage, brings to mind David Hare’s play Absence of War.
I say ‘brings to mind’ – as a result of working on a forthcoming Radio 4 documentary on representations of New Labour I have just seen the 1995 television version of Hare’s play, sadly only available from the BBC Library.
After gaining unique behind-the-scenes access to Labour’s 1992 campaign Hare wrote about a Labour leader during a close election, which (spoiler alert) the party loses. Hare’s ‘George Jones’ is a kind of Neil Kinnock – a firebrand socialist whose rhetoric and commitment had once touched audiences.
However, as leader, Jones imposed discipline on an anarchic party to make it electable and in the process his closest aides had imposed discipline upon him, afraid he would revert to type and say the wrong thing.
As the campaign begins Jones is then trapped behind words and phrases that were not his own. He is also being undermined by some of his closest Parliamentary colleagues. This caution means that Labour’s campaign goes nowhere. To save the party from defeat Jones decides to go back to how he used to be, speaking not from notes written by others but from his own heart.
Yet at a major rally he discovers that his heart can no longer supply those inspirational words, so enmeshed had he become within an inauthentic politics and he is forced to read out his speech like a good little leader.
There is no suggestion that Brown is about to be set free like Jones, even though he threatening to invoke God against the Conservatives. Hare’s protagonist mouthed platitudes in which he did not believe: Brown does not seem to have that problem.
There are however wider echoes between the play and the current campaign. About Labour at a particular time, The Absence of War also addressed a more general proposition – that the more parties package themselves, in the hope of improving their electablity, the less they are true to themselves and so stop engaging the passions of the electorate.
Now, maybe things are not as simple as Hare presents them – but does he not have a point? For, after a second leaders debate in which Brown’s case was reduced to one word (‘Risk!’), Cameron’s to ‘New’ and Clegg’s to ‘Different’, the relationship between politics and authenticity must be worth discussing.
Professor Steven Fielding