ON October 3 of last year the world awaited the verdict from a Los Angeles courtroom. That Tuesday was also the opening day of the Labour Party's annual conference at Brighton, and at 6:00 P.M.--10:00 A.M. Pacific Time, when the jury's decision was due--many of us covering the conference headed for televisions in bars or hotel rooms. To our astonishment, the BBC led off its news program not with the O. J. Simpson verdict but with the keynote speech that Tony Blair, the Labour leader, had given earlier that day. Surprise turned into a mixture of irritation and amusement when the full story emerged. The television companies had been badgered by faxes from Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary: "Whilst I fully understand there is much interest in the verdict, I would implore you not to lose sight of the news value and of the importance to the country of Mr Blair's speech." Nor did they lose sight of it. The BBC did as it was told. This went beyond spin-doctoring. It was news management worthy of a none-too-democratic Balkan state, or of some Third World country rejoicing in the "new information order."
The arrogance would have seemed outrageous coming from the Prime Minister's office. But Blair was not Prime Minister, only behaving as if he were, after little more than a year--though a triumphant year--as leader of the opposition. When he became party leader, Labour had been out of office for more than fifteen years; an entire generation has grown up knowing only Tory rule. Labour has lost four general elections in succession, a record unprecedented since well before the advent of universal suffrage. It managed to lose the last election, in 1992, to what looked like an enfeebled Tory government in the depths of a recession. Since 1974, when Harold Wilson last won a general election for Labour, the party has had five leaders, none of whom has won a general election and four of whom have never been Prime Minister. A British citizen now needs to be over forty to have voted for a Labour government.