The New Statesman Essay - The old Labour rocks re-emerge

Blair hasn't changed his party's anti-liberal culture, argues David Marquand

The sight of young squire Tony Blair addressing his assembled tenants at the TUC conference had a strong element of black comedy about it, but it would have been a mistake to laugh too loudly. New Labour's lordly disdain for the trade union movement is part and parcel of a deeper disdain for its own history, indeed for history in general. The very term "new" Labour; the relentless rhetoric of "modernisation"; the brief but painful embarrassment of the "Young Country" slogan; the restless search for a "Third Way"; and the party's extraordinary unwillingness to celebrate its own approaching centenary are all symptoms of the same unyielding determination to pretend that the past does not exist.

The pretence is easily explained. Some new Labour paladins were among the neo-socialist enrages who undermined the Labour moderates of the early 1980s and who helped to saddle the party with the far-left extravaganza on which it fought the 1983 election. Many of them - including Blair himself - stood on that platform, with no public sign of disagreement. The rhetoric of modernity and novelty enables them to present themselves as born-again centrists, exempted from the pain of confronting past mistakes and subsequent changes of heart, and with no obligation to explain them. On a deeper level, the rhetoric rescues the party from the need to base its policies on moral choices and to offer moral arguments for them. The new is, by definition, good, or at any rate inescapable. Change is an irresistible force, operating independently of human agency. The Third Way does not have to be defended against alternative visions of the future, based on different moral and ideological premises. As Tony Blair famously puts it: "What counts is what works."

Yet the more vigorously the party disavows its past, the more its ties to the past obtrude. In May 1997 it appeared to offer a genuinely new beginning. Blair's courageous campaign to rewrite the party's aims had brought it into the mainstream of European social democracy. As a result, the divisions between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties narrowed to vanishing point. Blair's great achievement was to mobilise and lead a tacit anti-Conservative electoral coalition, centred on the Labour Party, but extending well beyond its confines. His reward was the most crushing non- Conservative election victory since 1906.

Attlee in 1945 and Wilson in 1966 also achieved great victories. Yet their coalitions unravelled only a few years later. Blair seemed to have learnt the lessons of their failures. Perhaps because he was a stranger to the Labour culture that both of them took for granted, he appeared to see himself, quite consciously, as the head of a broad-based progressive coalition analogous to that headed by Asquith and Lloyd George in the halcyon years of British social liberalism before the first world war. He and his circle openly talked the language of progressivism. He made overtures to the Liberal Democrats that he had no need to make. A long-delayed, much-needed marriage between social liberalism and social democracy seemed in prospect.

This was a remarkable departure from the norm of Labour history. From 1922 - when Labour became a serious contender for control of the state - until 1997, there had been only two decisive Labour victories. Apart from a brief period in the early 1980s, Labour had always been strong enough to stop anyone else from offering a serious challenge to the Conservatives. But, for most of the time, it was also too weak to make its own challenges effective. It had captured only part of the pre-1914 progressive coalition, not the whole of it. Despite occasional, half-hearted attempts to do so, it never managed to transcend the limitations of the Labour culture, with its strange mixture of assertiveness and defensiveness, of sectional fragmentation and group loyalty, that had entered the bloodstream of its leaders and activists. Its fortresses in the old industrial regions were invulnerable, but its forays into the sociological territory beyond them generally came to a bad end.

The party frequently tried to reach out to the middle ground. Sometimes it succeeded. But it confined its efforts to the realm of policy and ideas, characteristically by emphasising its caution and moderation. It did not - could not - realise that its most serious handicaps were cultural, not ideological or programmatic: that bullying and intolerant Labour "moderates" were no more attractive to liberal-minded voters than sectarian Labour left-wingers. The paradoxical conservatism of the Labour movement - its lack of imagination, its inward-looking factionalism, its propensity for heresy-hunting, its suspicion of new ideas - was the other side of the coin of the rhetorical radicalism that was part of the currency of Labour politics. Both were equally offensive to the anti- Conservative constituencies that lay beyond the walls of the Labour ghetto.

More damagingly still, the relationship between the Labour Party and the progressive intelligentsia, on which it depended for ideas and which alone could validate its claim to be a potential party of government, rather than the vehicle for a social interest, was always tense, uneasy and ambiguous. The old progressive taunt that the Tories were the stupid party contained a large element of truth - at any rate until the rise of the new right in the 1970s. But it did not follow that Labour was the clever party. In the interwar years, the best minds on the British left were as likely to be Liberal (or even, for a brief period, communist) as Labour. In the postwar period, when the Liberals were at their nadir electorally and the Communist Party was beyond the pale, relations between the Labour Party and the intellectual left were reasonably close. But the schisms of the 1970s and early 1980s opened a gulf between them which Neil Kinnock's wooden decency was powerless to bridge. Labour was the obvious home of the intellectuals of the left for only 20 of the 70-odd years during which it was a serious contender for power.

In the roseate glow of May 1997, it looked as if all this might change. Well before Blair's accession to the Labour Party leadership, the intellectual hegemony of the new right had started to crumble. Writers such as Will Hutton, John Gray, John Kay, Ralf Dahrendorf and Harold Perkin were groping their way towards a new intellectual and political paradigm, combining insights from traditional social liberalism and traditional social democracy, and centred on the notions of a stakeholder economy, a pluralistic polity and a public domain ring-fenced from the market domain. The Social Justice Commission, set up by John Smith, and the Dahrendorf Commission, set up by Paddy Ashdown, struck essentially the same chords. In a different sphere, Charter 88 mobilised a surprisingly wide-ranging constituency behind a programme of constitutional reform, designed to create pluralistic checks and balances to protect civil society from an overmighty central state.

The emerging new paradigm was inchoate, even fuzzy, but five features stood out. It was broadly liberal in politics, but broadly social-democratic in economics. It was for capitalism and against socialism, but it implied profound changes in the architecture of British capitalism and a corresponding challenge to powerful corporate interests. Though it drew heavily on American academic writing, its vision of the political and moral economy was much closer to that of mainland Europe than to that of the United States. In the British context, at any rate, it was new. Above all, it was pluralistic. It implied a multiplicity of power centres, economic and political, and it rejected the notion of a single modern condition to which there was a single route.

In opposition, Blair walked warily. Apart from a brief and half-hearted flirtation with stakeholding - cut short when it became clear that it alarmed the business interests he was trying to woo - his only gestures towards this half-formed cluster of aspirations were in the domain of constitutional reform. But in the run-up to, and immediate aftermath of, the 1997 election, this did not seem to matter. In the perspective of Labour history - indeed, in the perspective of 20th-century British history - new Labour's constitutional programme was, after all, extraordinary. For the first time since the 1920s, Labour seemed to have abandoned its obsession with uniformity and central control. For the first time since 1914, a major party was proposing to reconstruct the British state on essentially pluralistic lines. The democratisation of Britain, which had reached a hiatus after the belated arrival of universal suffrage in the 1920s, seemed about to move forward again. These were huge pluses, easily outweighing the minuses in other spheres.

Even the minuses did not then seem particularly worrying. It was true that, in the economic and social domains, Blair had bent over backwards to show his respectability. It was also true that his election campaign had been mind-numbingly negative. But no one could have been more negative than Roosevelt in 1932, with the possible exception of Campbell Bannerman in 1906. The Roosevelt coalition that saved American capitalism from itself and changed the face of American society and politics emerged after its creator's victory, not before. The same was true of the progressive coalition that, after 1906, laid the foundations of the British welfare state and ended the veto power of the House of Lords. As the Young Lochinvar of non-Conservative Britain crossed the threshold of Downing Street, it was permissible to hope that the same would happen again. An open-minded, tolerant and intellectually adventurous progressive coalition, centred on but wider than a rejuvenated Labour Party, seemed to be taking shape.

Two and a half years later, the omens are less encouraging. Like rocks revealed by an ebbing tide, the lineaments of old Labour are beginning to re-emerge as the euphoria of victory fades. Not in the realm of policy or doctrine. Doctrinally, the Blair project has little in common with the social democracy (or, for that matter, the social liberalism) of the past. The social liberal and social democratic traditions were not identical but they both held that the capitalist free market should be tamed in the interests of social citizenship and human flourishing. New Labour has turned that proposition inside out. Its aim is to re-engineer the society and culture so that the economy can compete more effectively in the global market place. In its own terms, the project seems to be moderately successful. But the new paths that were opened in the late eighties and early nineties have been closed off, and the old, 19th-century distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor has been given a new lease of life.

In other respects, the differences between new and old Labour are less striking than the similarities. There is the same propensity for heresy-hunting and arm-twisting; the same gulf of suspicion between the party and its natural intellectual supporters; and the same exaggerated faith in the capacity of ministers and civil servants to engineer social and economic changes from their offices in Whitehall. The constitutional revolution that new Labour unleashed when it came into office seems to have stalled. Freedom of information is the mouse that did not roar. Quangoland has neither been cut back nor democratised. Electoral reform - the most important single precondition of a pluralistic polity - is on a back burner so remote as to be virtually invisible. To judge by the party's evidence to the Wakeham Commission, ministers want House of Lords reform to produce a nominated second chamber, strengthening elective dictatorship instead of weakening it. Two great achievements - devolution and the Human Rights Act - deserve undying gratitude. But one cannot help noticing that, having created alternative power centres in Edinburgh and Cardiff, the party leadership did its best to negate the achievement by telling its Scottish and Welsh supporters how to use them.

The Labour tribe has moved into new ideological territory, but it is still the same tribe. It hunts new prey in new ways, but it has carried its culture with it. As a result, the dilemma that has haunted the British progressive tradition since the first world war has taken on a new guise. The problem is no longer that Labour cannot mobilise non-Labour constituencies beyond its fortress walls. We cannot know if the Blair coalition will be more enduring than the Attlee and Wilson coalitions, but for the moment, at least, new Labour's coalition-building skills are not in doubt. The problem is that, in its rush for the middle ground, it has abandoned some of the central themes of the progressive tradition, while sticking to the aspects of its own ethos and culture that have always been most apt to alienate liberal-minded progressives, irrespective of party.

In the short term, at least, it is unlikely to pay an electoral price. The obvious ploy for the Conservatives is to repackage themselves as the champions of a vibrant civil society and the enemies of a bossy-boots central state. But, in order to do that, they would have to repudiate their own, equally bossy-boots proclivities in government, and it is hard to believe that the repudiation would carry conviction. The medium and long term are a different matter. The Conservative tradition is much richer and more complex than the left likes to acknowledge, and it would not be difficult for a clever Conservative leader to give it a pluralistic and democratic gloss once memories of Thatcherite centralism start to fade. We should never forget that it was Disraeli, not Gladstone, who put through the 1867 Reform Act. Disraeli-Hague would not carry much conviction, but Disraeli-Portillo would look quite plausible.

In any case, electoral considerations are not the only ones that matter. The real point is that complex, multi-fissured postmodern societies can be governed successfully only through a politics of pluralistic power-sharing and negotiation. If new Labour really wants the 21st century to be a progressive century, it will have to rediscover the pluralistic strands in its own tradition. And to do that, it will have to look its past in the face.

The author is principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. The second edition of his "The Progressive Dilemma" has just been published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson