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EDITIONS
Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 18:11 GMT
Putting power before principle?
A major new political drama for BBC One, The Project, charts the careers of four young Labour activists from university to the corridors of Westminster. But what happens to passion and commitment when gaining power becomes all important?

The Project's Director, Peter Kosminsky, remembers the night of the 1997 election clearly.

He says: "I live in the heart of Tory middle England.  I sat huddled in one room with most of the other left-leaning people in that small town.  

"When Basildon fell we cheered.  We were stunned into silence when Stephen Twigg unseated Michael Portillo in Enfield.  The scale of the victory was almost unnerving.  

"It really did seem to be, as Peter Snow was busy saying on the BBC results programme, '...the end of an era in British politics'."  


Politicians are bracketed with used car salesmen and estate agents in terms of low public esteem

"How hollow that phrase rings now, five years later, when it's clear we did little more than replace one branch of the Conservative Party with another.

"Less trumpeted was the turn-out.  It was low, very much in keeping with the declining trend in successive national elections."

Now, says Peter, the British people are drifting away from politics, because they no longer trust politicians.  

Peter claims: "Within months of their election, Labour was busy reneging on election promises - private prisons, trial by jury, Freedom of Information, tuition fees, welfare cuts...

"No one likes to be lied to and spin is really just a polite word for lying."

Grass-roots of politics

It was his stark disillusionment with New Labour that led him to team up with producer Leigh Jackson and come up with the idea for "The Project".

Peter explains: "We had worked together on Warriors, a drama for BBC One about British soldiers keeping the peace in Bosnia.  We were keen to find something else on which to collaborate.  

"When we were students, getting involved in politics was viewed as an honourable option.

Matthew Macfadyen plays Paul Tibbenham in The Project
"Why was it, we wondered, that those who genuinely wanted to help improve the lot of their fellow men and women now chose aid work overseas rather than aspiring to govern their own country?  

"What had convinced the very people we needed to be our next generation of leaders - people whose motives were altruistic rather self-aggrandising - that it wasn't even worth trying?  

"We decided to make a drama, pitched at exactly this grass-roots level, to answer that question.

Over three and a half years he met 120 people who had worked for or with Labour in the nine years between the 1992 and 2001 general elections. 

Dirty tricks

Peter claims a letter sent from Alistair Campbell's department asked people not to co-operate - a request, he says, they ignored.

He says: "We managed to interview civil servants, members of parliament, special advisers and researchers as well as team members from Media Monitoring, Rapid Rebuttal, Attack, the Press Office, the Business Unit, and the advertisers.  

"A very clear message emerged, so clear in fact that Leigh and I began to suspect a party line.  


Once Labour was back in power, the good that they would do would more than compensate for the dark arts they had had to employ to get there

"In the mid-90s, as Labour moved from Walworth Road to Millbank, there was a feeling amongst the activists that almost anything was acceptable if it could guarantee the defeat of the Tories.  

"After four election defeats in a row these Labour insiders were prepared to contemplate some very shady activities - dirty tricks against the Tories more normally associated with the worst excesses of the tabloid press.  

"All of this could be swallowed if it resulted in the defeat of the Tories and, finally, a new Labour Government.  Because "...then we'd show them".

"The ends would demonstrably justify the means.  Once Labour was back in power, the good that they would do would more than compensate for the dark arts they had had to employ to get there.  

"What left this cadre shattered, disillusioned and ultimately unable to continue was the fact that, once Labour gained power, it failed to deliver.  

"In fact, worst of all, it started behaving like the Tory Government it had just replaced.

"Was it for this that they had lied and bugged and shafted their friends?"

Questionable future

Peter adds: "It makes for gripping drama.  But the research for these films has left me profoundly alarmed.  

"Our political rights and freedoms were hard fought for in this country.  We should not discard them lightly.  


When we put power before principle, principled people turn away

"People don't like to be lied to. Recently we have seen a man in a monkey suit elected to office. Three of four mayors elected in the autumn bore no party political allegiances.  

"European history is littered with examples of what happens when the public develops a contempt for the political process, when people of ability see no point in getting involved in politics.  Time and again, extremism has filled that vacuum.  

"When we put power before principle, principled people turn away, leaving the field to others.  

"Leigh and I made this film to help us answer one question.  Now I find myself facing another: what kind of political future are we bequeathing to our children?"

Alistair Campbell has denied he ever gagged Labour party workers or anyone else.

He said: "For the record, I have had no conversations with anyone from the BBC about Peter Kosminsky's programme The Project.

"Nor have I, contrary to his claims, ever sent letters to any Labour Party worker, or indeed to anyone else about it. Frankly, I have better things to do."

The Project will be shown on BBC One on Sunday 10 November and Monday 11 November, at 21:00 GMT.

See also:

07 Nov 02 | Politics
30 Jul 02 | Politics
23 Jun 02 | Politics
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