NS Essay - 'Without ideology, the role of politicians is no longer to persuade, merely to sell'

NS Labour conference 2004 - Because it governs without a clear set of principles, new Labour's polic

As Labour bowls into Brighton, it is more powerful than at any time in its history and on the brink of a near-certain sweep to a third term in office. Yet the party is lost and rudderless. While victory in the next election is virtually assured, the manifesto is glued to the drawing board. The Third Way, it seems, offers nothing for a third term. Rarely in political history has a party with such accumulated might had so little clue what to do with it. The weakest link for new Labour has always been the absence of a coherent set of ideas, a guiding philosophy - and the weakness is becoming more apparent with the passage of time.

Ideology is a dirty word in new Labour circles. Tony Blair himself has said that the era of "all-embracing theories of politics - religious in nature, whose adoption would solve all human problems" is over and that there can be no "ideological preconditions" when approaching problems. Indeed, attempts to portray quite straightforward differences of opinion within the party as ideological certainly sound quaint. When Roy Hattersley declares that the reappointment of Alan Milburn is "a declaration of ideological war", you wonder how he would describe the contest between state communism and liberal capitalism before 1989.

New Labour's approach is summed up by the soundbite: "What matters is what works." By casting opponents on left and right as being trapped in outdated doctrines, Labour has positioned itself as moderate and modern, operating in the world as it is rather than as it theoretically ought to be. A true moderniser would rather have herpes than an ideology. Instead, new Labour has emphasised "timeless values" - fairness, responsibility, community or even, on a wild day, equality - and talked about how to apply them in today's world. Blair told Philip Stephens of the Financial Times that "in the first half of the 20th century we imbibed a Marxism, or quasi-Marxism even in forms of Fabian socialism, that ended up with us having incredibly rigid views about the state and its role . . . And I think with me . . . I have a very, very strong sense of values - but a diminished sense of preconception about how those values should be translated into practice."

Values have always animated political ideologies and philosophies, which in turn have provided a framework for policy. But by cutting out the ideological middleman, new Labour can go straight from values to policy: from fairness to the New Deal, without any need for social democracy along the way. Ideology has been replaced by "valuology".

The political advantages are obvious. While you are driven by deep values married to pragmatism, everyone else is a doctrinaire, swivel-eyed ideologue. And without any clear commitments to a particular philosophy, it is possible to steal the clothes of opponents almost at will: witness the recent Labour enthusiasm for attacking the numbers, job attendance rates and commitment of public servants.

There are also some real policy advantages. Very few of the problems faced by a 21st-century government have obvious solutions. In some cases, the unleashing of more market forces may well be in order (education, perhaps), while in others market forces may need to be kept under tight rein (health, perhaps). What matters is the quality of the resulting product, not the production process. This approach also seems to fit a consumerist society.

Those who oppose Blair within the party often use the absence of a clear ideology as a stick with which to beat him - but never come up with anything less vacuous. If the choice is between Blair's platitudes and someone else's, there is much to be said for the devil you know. It is not just new Labour that is sailing without any bearings - it is the entire centre left. Critics to the left of Blair are not fighting him with a worked-through version of social democracy, merely with reheated old Labour views about redistribution via higher taxes. Everyone is in a vacuum.

This is not to say that there are no ideas flying around. A single speech by Gordon Brown usually contains a dozen. Pamphlets, op-ed pieces and seminars churn out a noisy stream of ideas. There are numerous gurus, most of whom have been described as Blair's favourite at some point (see boxes on pages 44 and 46). But in terms of sustained, principled, hard thinking about what it means to be Labour, all is quiet. There are three possible explanations for the barrenness of the intellectual landscape.

First, Labour failed to use the long years in opposition to recraft social democracy. As the nation swung right, the party first swung to the left. It then engaged in almost a decade of internecine struggle, after which it succeeded in abandoning most of the suicidal political baggage of the old left, but without picking up much that was new to replace it. Blair might have managed it, given more time as opposition leader. In the early 1990s, the Social Justice Commission (on which I was a research fellow), set up by John Smith, would probably have produced a very different document had Blair been leader throughout its work. But it went from being seen by the leadership as dangerously modernising to old hat almost overnight. By the time Blair became leader, all thoughts were on the election. Shaping the party was the priority. Blair brilliantly succeeded in adapting Labour to the post-Thatcher world. He failed to do the same for social democracy.

The second cause of the ideological hiatus has been an unwillingness to draw on Labour history in formulating a renewed philosophy. For Blair, new Labour is "literally a new party". Yet he has frequently highlighted the links between new Labour and the pre-1914 alliance of Liberals and Labour, and the costs of the split between those two strands - what David Marquand calls the "progressive dilemma". Steven Fielding, a Labour history scholar, describes the "incorporation of elements from another party's past" as the "most intriguing feature of new Labour's tradition". And the Lib Dems still seem to think a realignment is possible, a triumph of hope over experience.

But there has been no attempt to connect new Labour to the body of thought in the party's own, more recent past - perhaps because of a wish to protect the "newness" of the new Labour project. This has closed off the possibility of building on the work of those earlier Labour thinkers whose concerns and themes prefigured contemporary debates. There is an obvious connection between Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism (1956) and new Labour's attempt to turn consumerism, individualism and "style of life" in the direction of greater freedom and fairness. Yet as another historian, Jose Harris, has pointed out, there are echoes of Harold Laski, too, "most strongly in his focus on pluralism; [and] in his highlighting of 'exclusion' as the clue to civic disaffection". The deafness of new Labour to its own party's past has made for weaker contemporary political thinking.

A third reason for the ideological emptiness has been a more general failure to engage seriously with political and philosophical ideas. It is true that Thatcherism was largely made up as it went along - but there was a rich stock of intellectual material to draw upon. During the 1970s, the Tory think-tanks were working in ideological space; the centre-left think-tanks have spent the past decade camped in technocratic space. They have lots to say about NVQs or childcare funding, but precious little about the future of social democracy. Funding is part of the reason; progressive think-tanks rely on project funding, and few big spenders want to splash out for treatises on political theory, which rarely make it into the front three pages, even of the Guardian.

One argument frequently given for the absence of good political thinking on the left is the absence of high-quality progressive scholarship. It's not fair, people say; the Tories had Hayek. But this doesn't wash. After all, Hayek's insights to British Conservative thinking did not come ready-wrapped; he is no picnic to read. It needed smart think-tankers and politicians to digest his work and apply it to contemporary political issues. There is no absence of similar scholarship on the left.

Take Amartya Sen, the Nobel prizewinning economist and philosopher. His work on rational choice, the significance of "capability freedom" and the evaluation of well-being - to mention just a few of his areas of insight - could all be powerfully applied to domestic political thinking. Indeed, Sen's use of freedom as a value in assessing the distribution of economic and social resources could provide the intellectual substance for new Labour's tentative embrace of "liberal socialism". You will look in vain, however, for the influence of Sen on a single domestic policy, a single senior Labour figure, or a single think-tank report.

Thatcherism was possible only because the ideological graft was done. As Harris writes: "Labour ultimately lost its postwar hegemony, not to rival pragmatists . . . but to a party that, temporarily at least, took seriously the analytical and polemical weapons offered by political theory. It seems plausible to infer that negligence and sentimentalism in these areas were of some contributory significance in old Labour's long-term political demise." It seems equally plausible to wonder if new Labour will go the same way.

Yet new Labour's firm view is that voters now want competent, secure government, not societal transformation. And there is indeed a danger of wishing for the heat of political battle simply for its own theatrical sake, rather than because there is anything of monumental significance to fight over. Perhaps it is a sign of a more mature politics that lines are less easily drawn and that there are no theories on hand with the ready answer. In these circumstances, valuology may be the best bet. If that means just a small strip of muddy water between the parties, so be it.

But the trouble is that although valuology is a good way to win elections, it is a hopeless way to govern. The absence of a clear set of principles leads to incoherence and inconstancy in policy-making; it slows the pace of reform; provides no tools for altering the disposition of power; and offers no vocabulary with which to shift popular opinion.

The result of the "what matters is what works" approach is that each policy area is dealt with separately, and potentially very differently. So freedom reigns when it comes to licensing gambling, despite the possible impact on families and communities. Schools must be thrifty when it comes to school meals and playing fields; but we must act to ensure children eat healthily and get plenty of exercise. People should be free to travel as they wish; but we need to be responsible to the environment. There has been less talk lately of the need for "joined-up government", perhaps because of the realisation that it requires a joined-up philosophy.

The tactical freedom of an ideology-lite approach to policy makes reform slower, because delegation is difficult. Civil servants knew what kind of approach the Thatcher governments were likely to take to a particular problem. They prepared themselves accordingly. Equally, ministers had a good sense of what the prime minister wanted them to do, even if they didn't always do it.

Under the Labour government, however, civil servants say they never know what line will be taken on a particular policy: it could be interventionist or laissez-faire; liberal or authoritarian; populist or principled; centralising or decentralising, depending on the minister and the mood of Nos 10 or 11 Downing Street. Blair often vents his frustration at the slow pace of reform. He might want to consider the possibility that a clearer sense of direction would speed up the journey.

The absence of ideology also means the lack of any clear anatomy of power relations. Political philosophies and ideologies are centrally based on a view of the operation and distribution of power in society - and how to alter it. The power relationships between individuals and the state, companies and workers, parliament and government, producers and consumers, are examined and criticised from left and right. And so a further danger of a purely pragmatic, managerial politics is that it simply cannot tackle inequalities of power.

Marx may have been wrong to say that power principally flowed from ownership of the means of production, and the new right may be wrong to say that power flows from free individuals in free markets. But where does new Labour think power comes from? The party is committed in its new Clause Four to a fair distribution of power. What does this mean? It is vital to have a systematic view of who holds too much power, and how to give some of it to those who hold too little. Otherwise, economic power simply attaches to wealth, and political power to office - a short step from oligarchy.

Most important, the absence of a clear political philosophy makes the task of shifting popular sentiment almost impossible. It is not enough for politicians to persuade the electorate to vote for certain policies. They also need to offer compelling and distinct views of how the world could and should be. The challenge is not only to win power, but to shift social values. Thatcher did this brilliantly, altering attitudes significantly towards unions, tax, local councils and Europe.

Labour has so far failed to change the mindset of the nation. For all the verbal flummery around fairness, responsibility and newness, attitudes towards redistribution, for example, have if anything hardened.

If Labour's legacy is to be embedded, it has to win not only votes, but also hearts and minds: the point of progressive politics is not just to capture the centre ground, but to shift it.

In the absence of a clear philosophy or ideology, politics is reduced to a fragile, transactional state, with fickle voter-consumers easily lured one way or the other. As Colin Leys suggests in his Market-Driven Politics, "New Labour [can] hope only for customer loyalty, ie, conditional loyalty based on performance, not the more enduring kind of political loyalty that comes from shared beliefs and solidarity."

Once, Labour strove to root policy in what Sidney Webb called the "best Political Science of its time". Now the shallowness of political debate on the left and the limits of valuology have left the party struggling to find policies to fill a third term. Unless the ideas gap can be filled, we face either an intellectual revival of the right or a succession of election contests between little more than competing brands - the ultimate triumph of the market. Without ideology, the role of politicians is no longer to persuade, merely to sell.

How to be a guru: the seven-step guide

Gurus have come a long way from their origins in religious teaching. Today, they spring from business, journalism or academia. The advantages of being a guru include higher book sales, greater media exposure, better dinner-party invitations and an unrivalled opportunity to opine on pretty much any subject and be taken seriously. But how do you become a guru? Just follow this seven-step plan:

1. Write a "Ronseal" book. A book is essential in establishing credibility. The quality of the content is not critical; few people will actually read it. The most effort should go on finding a title that simply and dramatically summarises the key message: the book has to do what it says on the tin. Good examples include Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and Beyond Left and Right by Anthony Giddens.

2. Develop a catchphrase. Unless the basic idea can be captured in a snappy soundbite, metaphor or phrase, you'll never make it to the editorial pages. Learn from Will Hutton's "stakeholder economy", Robert Putnam's "social capital" and Charles Leadbeater's "knowledge-based economy".

3. Get on to the Prime Minister's bedside table. If word leaks out that the PM is perusing your book, instant guru status is assured. Leadbeater and Jonathan Freedland benefited from the "bedside bounce".

4. Exaggerate. Nobody became a modern guru by hedging their bets. If you have a case, overstate it. Society is imploding; Labour is dead; history/economics/the family are Dead or At an End. Shoshana Zuboff's The Support Economy describes nothing less than a "Copernican revolution" in the relationship between customers and firms.

5. Get a plug. The best way to break into guru space is to have a journalist write about you. Hutton single-handedly launched Zuboff into the UK, leaving her startled publisher scrambling for extra PR support. (And, to be fair, I helped Barry "paradox of choice" Schwartz along on these and other pages.)

6. Do the Wonk Week. The itinerary should include a speech at the London School of Economics and/or Royal Society of Arts, an interview with a broadsheet, one think-tank seminar and a presentation to the government's Strategy Unit.

7. Be American. The Yanks are just so much better at this.

The state they're in now: new Labour's wise ones

They thought, they wrote, they toured, they had their ten minutes in the limelight. And then, sometimes with bewildering speed, they went away. Here are some of the gurus of the new Labour era: Amitai Etzioni. Academic at George Washington University, US, and leader of communitarian movement. Deplores negative side effects of free-market capitalism, but insists that state cannot replace society. Inspired Tony Blair's belief that rights must go hand-in-hand with social responsibilities. Still important, but lack of practical proposals limits his influence. Key work: The Spirit of Community (1993). Anthony Giddens. Distinguished sociologist, recently retired director of the London School of Economics, father of the Third Way (in UK, at least) and still the biggest intellectual star in the new Labour firmament. Blair once said people did not need to meet him if they had already met Giddens. Argues left has to come to terms with individualism, and old-left faith in state action and high taxes is outdated. Strong supporter of public-private mix. Now in House of Lords. More highly regarded abroad, particularly in Italy, than in UK. Regular NS contributor. Key work: The Third Way (1998). Will Hutton. Observer columnist and former editor, now head of Work Foundation. Argues Anglo-Saxon capitalism is too dominated by the short-termist perspectives of footloose shareholders. Advocates "stakeholder society" instead and offers Japan and Germany as models. Influence faded as Japan and Germany faded. Strongly opposes new Labour's private finance initiative (PFI). Key works: The State We're In (1995) and The Stakeholding Society (1998). Charles Leadbeater. Former Independent journalist who argues that the future lies in the "knowledge-based economy", where the most valuable commodities are ideas and innovations. Social equality, as well as economic growth, will come from educating everybody to highest possible level. Still a powerful behind-the-scenes force, co-authoring government white and green papers. Key work: Living on Thin Air (1999). Jonathan Freedland. Guardian columnist who argues that US democracy, republicanism and civic engagement started in Britain and now need to be imported back. Book allegedly "devoured" both by Blair and by the then Tory leader William Hague. "At the heart of the new debate" about Britain's future, said the Sun. No longer close to No 10's heart: in the Guardian this month, called Blair's survival "an affront to our constitution". Key work: Bring Home the Revolution (1998). John Kay. Leading economist and Financial Times columnist who said, before the 1997 election, that for "the first time in [his] adult life", he could vote for a party "which combines commitment to markets with social concern". Supporter of state role in curbing monopolies, regulating industries that sell complex products (eg, financial services) and stopping health, safety and pollution abuses. Equally firm that governments should otherwise "leave well alone". Key work: The Truth About Markets (2003). Robert Putnam. Harvard don who argues that people's involvement in local clubs and other civic activities has declined steeply in recent years. This accounts for apathy and alienation, he says. Has hosted seminars at No 10. Key work: Bowling Alone (2000). Mark Moore. Another Harvard don who has emerged as the latest guru for his "public value" theory.

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