What Blair should say in Bournemouthby Philip Collins / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Labour backbenchers are revolting. Their puzzlement and anger over the war has been transferred into surrogate issues: foundation hospitals before the break, top-up fees when term restarts. There will be a fractious session of parliamentary tidying-up to be endured before the Labour party conference, at which their grievances will be properly ventilated. Voters too are more sceptical than at any time in the past six years, and only partly because of Iraq. So when Tony Blair stands up to address the gathering, what should he say to his two audiences-to those inside the hall in Bournemouth, whom he has never truly reached, and those outside whom he has, but who may now be slipping away? First, he should resist the demand for a dose of ideology. Ross McKibbin, in a recent article in the London Review of Books, argues that this is what the Labour party needs. As usual with this type of argument, McKibbin is demanding that his own tendency be privileged. Indeed, McKibbin concludes that Robin Cook should be prime minister. There is no evidence that the electorate (as distinct from parts of the Labour party) wants a more left-wing government. This is a familiar delusion and a hopeless manifesto for resolving the progressive dilemma. Speak only to the audience in the hall, McKibbin seems to be saying; ignore the audience outside. An ideology provides both a full explanation of political conflict and a standard against which reform can be judged. Ideological thinkers tend to care more about the means (NHS, comprehensive schooling) than about the outcomes (health of the nation, skill deficits). How to resolve the tensions contained in expanding higher education, while finding the money to pay for it and not angering too much of the middle class? An ideology will give both an answer and false comfort. This is why so many people prefer ideology to politics. Politics, by contrast, is compromised, piecemeal, negotiated, hard to follow. It is a poor criticism of New Labour that it has abandoned ideology. Its failure to supersede ideological thinking is more to the point. So, if reaching back for the ideology that served the Labour party so badly during the wilderness years cannot be the answer, what message should the prime minister offer in Bournemouth? First, he needs to take on (again) the accusation that New Labour is a deviation from the received writ of the party’s thought. The illusion-that there is an authentic essence which practical politics is always on the verge of betraying-is a typically ideological way of thinking. And now the bumper book of betrayal stories has a new chapter. After Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden we have university top-up fees. (It is remarkable that a brave socialist rebellion and Conservative party policy currently coincide.) It would also help if Blair spoke about public service reform in appropriate language. People who send their children to the local school are not “consumers.” It is right, however, to allow them to exercise their judgement in the choice of school for their child. Such choice will improve the quality of provision over time, especially in poorer areas, as Howard Glennerster has shown in a recent article in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. Second, the prime minister should concede that although he does not require more ideology, he does need a more coherent account of his government and its primary domestic purpose. It is wrong to suggest that New Labour has devised no narratives at all. It has told credible stories about work, about security in a global marketplace, about the mutual exchange of the citizen’s responsibility in return for welfare rights, about the connections between fairness and efficiency, about rewards for those who work hard, given an adequate platform by the state. But it is, it has to be said, a curiously unsatisfying narrative, still unfolding, not very dramatic. This is what modern politics is like. And indeed, as David Goodhart has argued (Prospect, July), piecemeal social reform is what the Labour government was elected to carry out. It must be galling to be criticised for doing just that. Some of those critics misread the 1997 election victory. The sense of euphoria was largely negative; it was a glee at being rid of a government that had been corrupted by time. It is easy to suppose that Labour’s decisive electoral victory (although achieved with fewer votes than John Major polled in 1992) was a mandate for a dramatic shift to the left. It was nothing of the sort. The scale of the victory reflected the caution of the campaign. But Goodhart is wrong to imply that technocratic politics is the best we can hope for. Politics can never be just technocratic. It is also about a destination for the country, even if the route we take is littered with “key performance indicators” and “best-value regimes.” Blair’s difficult task is to make piecemeal social reform seem inspiring to a party that wants something more radical, and to do so in a language that the hall understands. Six years in and the opposition nowhere close to being a government-in-waiting, he can afford to dream a little. He has cleared the space to set out his vision of the good society, for it is the absence of an image of the good society which is ailing New Labour. Let us hear it. Actually, we will have heard quite a lot of it before, scattered through other speeches. The essential thought should be that the good society is one in which the potential of each citizen can be realised. The aim of policy is to expand the number of people who can choose the broad outlines of their life course. This fits easily into an economic story: it is efficient, as well as right, for people to be as productive as they can. It conforms with most people’s instincts about justice: people are being asked to be as good as they might become. It is weighted towards the poor: surely the most untapped potential occurs at the lower end of the income scale. It is universal in scope. It places a high value on social mobility, the best means of ensuring that life chances are as closely matched to abilities as possible. This has plenty of policy implications. The only way to make any difference to life chances is to concentrate policy on children. Education spending has a less marked effect on the life chances of a child as he or she grows older. If improving the lot of the least well off is the defining purpose of people on the left, then pressing spending into the early years makes very good sense. Suddenly, a story about human potential begins to unfold that explains something about why we cannot spend all we would like on higher education. It is also universal. All classes of people have children and the potential of all of them is important. This is the good society according to New Labour. Blair could supply us with a destination-where are we heading? He could supply us with a map-a drastically simplified guide to the terrain, certainly, but useful for knowing where we are. And, more than anything else, he could tell the country that he was animated by a noble purpose at the same time as supplying the faithful with the sense that they have a worthy crusade. That might, at least, leave him in a stronger position to do battle on that more nebulous terrain of trust.