In the nine o'clock slot filled for the past few weeks by a history of the Premier League BBC2 last night broadcast the first episode of a new series about another modernising project created in the early to mid nineties with the self-proclaimed aim of moving away from a traditionally working-class base and image to attract more middle-class supporters, Blair and Brown: the New Labour Revolution.
The programme highlighted the differing personal backgrounds of the two men, prefiguring the personal rivalry and policy conflicts that would come to define their relationship in government, but conceded that there was very little that divided them in their overall politics. Indeed, beyond the polling and presentational skills of the press and PR officers hired by New Labour, and a centrist message consciously modelled on that of the US Democrats, it found it hard to identify Blair with any real interest in politics except a vague progressivism picked up as a student at Oxford in the early to mid seventies (where he admitted he was more interested in playing in a rock band than the industrial and social tumult of that decade) and later from his liberal barrister wife. Unlike Brown, who worked his way up through the ranks of the Scottish Labour establishment, he seems to have almost accidentally entered politics through a network of legal acquaintances, before discovering an eagerness to become first a MP and then party leader (you can easily imagine him having been elected as the leader of any of the three mainstream political parties).
In outlining the period before the creation of New Labour, the programme threw up a number of what ifs: what if Neil Kinnock had won the 1992 General Election? What if John Smith had led the party into the 1997 campaign? What if Brown had stood against Blair for the leadership after the death of his friend and mentor Smith? All unknowable of course, but we do in a sense seem to be back where we started in the eighties, with a soft left leader ousting a more radical, but electorally unpopular, one before turning sharply to the right, while apparently unable to land a punch on a Tory government with a large majority despite its mainfest failings.