Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Those of us who live nearby always had our doubts about whether the Dome could live up to the hype. On badly contaminated land at the Blackwall Point an alien pod arose, so unprepossessing at a distance that the gasometer next to it looked bigger. How, we asked ourselves, would it ever attract visitors? So far, it would appear, it has attracted very few indeed.
In the absence of official figures--the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) refuses to divulge them on a weekly basis--mid-January press reports suggested that the average might be running at around 8,000 a day which is just over a quarter of capacity. The Blairite spin doctors have insinuated that 'real' people, as opposed to middle class killjoys, are enthusiastic about their experience. As evidence they point to an 85 percent satisfaction rate of visitors polled by the Sunday Times.
This explanation is less than convincing. Those visiting the Dome are likely to be predisposed in its favour. What the Sunday Times poll also let slip was that 38 percent of those interviewed did not think it was good value for money and 26 percent said they would not recommend it to their friends. This lack of enthusiasm is borne out by another poll carried out by Mori for the Economist. Over half (56 percent) thought it was wrong to build the Dome, 37 percent did not think it had been a success so far, and 47 percent disagreed with Tony Blair that the millennium celebrations reflected a 'sense of confidence and optimism' in Britain.
This has led the NMEC to some rapid repackaging. Now they are saying that they never expected out of season months like January to have big attendances. They are also saying that the announcement of 'double sessions' is no panic measure, but something they had always planned. Double sessions, allowing 77,000 visitors a day (what the queues will be like then is anyone's guess), together with 140 days of peak demand at holiday times and an end of the year rush, will ensure the predicted target of 12 million visitors.
Yet the unease persists. There is continuing speculation that a looming shortfall of up to £23 million in income would come from raiding National Lottery funds, in addition to the £399 million it has already provided. Even if attendance does pick up, the whole nature of the Dome points to something fundamentally rotten about New Labour. Blair has long claimed how outdated it is, in a Clause Four kind of way, to attack the private sector's failure to meet the needs of society. Instead, the market can be turned into a social partner--and the Dome, championed by the arch-moderniser Peter Mandelson, is the shining beacon of that partnership.
Or so we were led to believe. Even knowing that the state would bail it out, big business only reluctantly forked out £150 million (out of the £758 million total). The government was always on hand to ensure that when it came to a conflict between creative design and corporate interests the latter would win out. Result--the Dome is a magnificent tent covering the biggest advertising space in the world, with Boots looking after our health (the Body Zone), Ford taking charge of our transport (the Journey Zone) and McDonald's doing the mass catering.
No wonder anyone with an ounce of creativity feels frustrated. The radical architect Zaha Hadid has said management assumed that 'every visitor is an idiot who can't understand complicated ideas'.
The overall message is, as Will Hutton noted in the Observer, one in which 'the public realm shrivels, taxation is a shibboleth, citizenship is mocked and shopping celebrated'. Things like the Money Zone, sponsored by the City of London, dismiss the chaos of the financial markets with the jingle that 'whatever happens in this unpredictable world, we can make our money work'. The Work Zone, sponsored by Manpower, repeats the New Labour mantra about flexible working in today's job market. There is nothing, Hutton points out, about inequality, corporate power or even the unions.
The irony is that, far from the high degree of efficiency we are told comes from market discipline, the Dome is plagued by muddle. Lengthy waits for the more popular zones have only reduced because attendance is low. Hour long queues at the Body Zone yield little more than a few minutes enjoyment inside. Already some exhibits do not work (or are not working properly), and some interactive games are out of order.
If the public is less than enamoured, the private sector is itself getting a bit worried. Reports that Boots had threatened to withhold its £12 million deal because of public disquiet over the Body Zone queues have been categorically denied. Interestingly, though, the row revealed that Boots had yet to sign its sponsorship contract. Neither had Mars, Manpower and BSkyB, though the first two had parted with a small amount of money.
Attention has now switched to the Dome's afterlife, with the government unveiling the names of those bidding to pay between £50 million and £150 million once the year long exhibition ends. Whatever happens, one thing is clear. Nearly £400 million came from the voluntary 'tax' of the National Lottery. If the Dome proves a turkey, the corporate sponsors will escape scot free, big business will pick over the bones and we shall be the losers. What could better sum up New Labour's vision of the future?