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Tuesday, September 28, 1999 Published at 19:14 GMT 20:14 UK

The Big Tent

Tony Blair is bringing together a new political elite

Episode 3 of the Radio 4 programme, Matrix of Power looks at the consequences of Labour's attempts to work with the party's opponents.

When Mrs Thatcher was in power she was accused of judging people on whether they were "one of us", with this government the only question seems to be: "Will you join us?"

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Since his election, Tony Blair, has co-opted over 3,000 businessmen, voluntary sector workers and academics on to over 300 taskforces and reviews. Some have been Labour supporters but most are either a-political or supporters of other parties.

This idea of inclusiveness comes from America where its known as Big Tent politics. The influential writer and policy analyst Charles Leadbeater - sometimes tagged 'Tony Blair's guru' - says the 'Big Tent' approach combines a quest for practical new ideas with a political project to build a election-winning coalition in the centre ground.

But Andrew Lansley, the opposition spokesman on Cabinet Office affairs, dismisses the inclusive rhetoric of Big Tent politics as "cover for Tony Blair's policy of being all things to all men."

Poaching Tory talent

For some time there has been anxiety in Conservative circles over the willingness of a number of high-profile Tories to accept public appointments from the Labour administration.

[ image: Working for the government - David Mellor heads the Football Taskforce]
Working for the government - David Mellor heads the Football Taskforce
But the former Conservative minister, David Mellor, who chairs the Football Taskforce, defends the practice. Mellor says the taskforces are essential to allowing talented Tories, who might otherwise be excluded from public life, to make a contribution to society.

Mellor says he saw no reason to consult the Conservative leader William Hague when his appointment to the Football Taskforce was first mooted.

Prominent members of the taskforces deny that ministers have put pressure on them to join or declare allegiance to the Labour party, though Teresa Graham of the Better Regulation Taskforce reports that party fundraisers did make hopeful bid to tap her for a £1000 contribution - which she refused to pay.

Lord Stevenson, the Chairman of Pearson Plc who set up a working party on IT for schools also rebuts recent press reports including him in Tony Blair's kitchen cabinet.

One newspaper identified Stevenson as the 12th most powerful man in Britain, with only three Cabinet ministers higher up the ranking. Stevenson denies he is a member of the Labour Party and says his only motivation is to use his power 'to do good', though he concedes that chairing the IT taskforce "gave me one hell of a kick."

Poor not included

Mark Seddon, the editor of the left-wing journal Tribune and a member of Labour's National Executive Committee, is critical of the composition of the taskforces.

While they include businessmen and successful people, Seddon says they unfairly exclude "socialists, environmentalists, trades unionists, public sector workers and the poor".

He argues for extending inclusivity to foster a culture of participation.

The Arts Council chairman, Gerry Robinson, emphatically rejects this approach. "There is no point in appointing chefs who cannot cook." Robinson does, however, warn that an unelected clique may come to exercise "an undue influence in the long term" and may constitute themselves into a new establishment.

"It is healthy now because they are new people", he says, "but it will not be healthy if the same faces are there in eight or nine years time."

The next episode, the Super Ministry, will be broadcast on 30 September at 2030 BST

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