Wanted: new-thinking pioneers

The intellectuals whose thinking underpinned Labour's return to office in 1997 have moved on. Where

What if people who want to see this government re-elected could see beyond the horrors of the past few weeks (the 10p tax-rate fiasco, the crumbling poll ratings, Labour's pitiful "anti-toff" campaign in Crewe and Nantwich, the growing triumphalism of the Conservative Party) and look at the wider political horizon? What would they find there?

The truth is that they would see a landscape largely barren of ideas. This is the true state of progressive opinion today. It is difficult to think of a single academic, writer or intellectual who is fully signed up to the Labour project as it exists in 2008. In fact, it is difficult to describe it as a project at all.

This is odd, because Labour's recovery under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was founded on a solid intellectual bedrock. The philosophy of the New Labour project, once described as the Third Way, is sometimes written off as an empty shell, but this is unfair. Even its most eloquent detractors recognised the attraction of its message. In his 2001 book Against the Third Way, the Trotskyist Alex Callinicos, then professor of politics at York University, wrote: "The attraction of the Third Way lies in the promise it offers of escaping the dead ends we have inherited from the past. Confronted with the unpalatable alternatives of Stalinism and Thatcherism, who wouldn't prefer a third way?" Who indeed? Not the generation of young politicians which now dominates British politics. Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Ed Balls and David Miliband all grew to adulthood between the miners' strike of 1984 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. All three major parties practise a form of Third Way politics. Despite its apparent collapse, the politics of the 21st century will be built from the rubble of New Labour.

Callinicos has argued that Labour under Tony Blair was never a genuine alternative for the left. Instead, New Labour became an essentially right-wing, neoliberalist exercise, outstripping even its Tory predecessors in its fervour for the private sector. The columnist George Monbiot made a similar point on Tuesday in the Guardian when he argued that the present government was the most right-wing since the war.

Like it or not, however, New Labour was always as much an intellectual concept as it was an electoral strategy. It emerged from left-wing think tanks, the pages of publications such as Marxism Today and New Left Review and, to a certain extent, from the ashes of the Social Democratic Party. For a time it appeared to offer a genuine alternative to traditional socialism.

In the early days, intellectuals of the Third Way put themselves at the service of New Labour. Roger Liddle, a founder of the SDP and the author, with Peter Mandelson, of The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? (1996), became a special adviser on European affairs to the new prime minister, Blair. Geoff Mulgan, a founder of the think tank Demos, became director of the government's Strategy Unit and later head of policy in the prime minister's office.

Hugely influential was the New Statesman contributor Professor Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics, whose 1994 book Beyond Left and Right is often seen as the founding text of the Third Way. Although Giddens never worked for the government, his thinking influenced those formulating New Labour policy.

Another important figure, Matthew Taylor, went from the Labour Party to work as director of the Institute for Public Policy Research before becoming chief adviser on strategy to the prime minister in 2003.

Interestingly, each of the figures above has retreated from direct involvement in the political sphere. Although some important New Labour thinkers, such as David Miliband and Andrew Adonis have gone on to become ministers and retain a role in the post-Blair world, most have not. Liddle now works on European issues for the international think tank Policy Network. Mulgan, perhaps the single most important intellectual figure in New Labour's history, left No 10 in 2004. He now leads the Young Foundation, an organisation based in east London, which attempts to put new political ideas into action on the ground, free from the restrictions of central government. Taylor has become the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, which he has turned into a forum for new ideas very much independent from his old political masters. Of the younger generation of New Labour intellectuals, Patrick Diamond, who worked in Blair's policy unit, now works as director of policy and strategy at the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

Recent publications by these New Labour thinkers suggest that they are no longer entirely focused on domestic policy. Diamond's Shifting Alliances (2008) examines Britain's increasingly troubled relationship with Europe and America, while Mulgan's Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government (2006) hoovers up examples from around the globe through a thousand years of political history.

Intellectual rebirth

The present occupant of No 10 Downing Street would be proud to describe himself as an intellectual. At the same time, his three closest political allies - Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander - are all quite capable of knocking off a political pamphlet for a think tank. But, crucially, they have yet to establish themselves as pioneers of new thinking. In the present political climate, even exceptional behind-the-scenes strategists such as Dan Corry, the present head of the No 10 Policy Unit, or Nick Pearce, Brown's strategy adviser, are in no position to think in the long term.

Those who left the heart of government may be better placed in this regard. It is as well not to be too conspiratorial about these things, but many of the Blair-era intellectuals continue to work closely together. For instance, Giddens, Diamond and Liddle are the co-authors of Global Europe, Social Europe (2006). Giddens and Diamond also co-wrote The New Egalitarianism (2005). All three are associated with Policy Network, on whose board they all serve, alongside the Blairite former cabinet ministers Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn.

There are signs of intellectual rebirth on the left, mostly driven by the women who lead the left-wing think tanks, as Richard Reeves has pointed out in these pages. Catherine Fieschi at Demos is a genuinely independent thinker, Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim at IPPR have both worked in government and Ann Rossiter at the Social Market Foundation is pure New Labour. But none could be described as a Brownite, and they have not been driving the Labour policy agenda.

As the anniversary of Brown's coronation as Labour leader approaches, murmurs of a challenger grow in volume. Charles Clarke has denied he will stand as a stalking-horse candidate, despite his criticism of the government's direction from the back benches. The website Politicalbetting has reported that Alan Milburn is planning a leadership bid after Crewe and Nantwich, when the Prime Minister is likely to be at his weakest. Whether or not this is true, the machinery and personnel remain in place to continue the intellectual tradition of the Third Way.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.