Bring back altruism

He just doesn't get it, does he? At the very moment when the Labour Party is supposedly trying to repair its relations with its core voters - with Ian McCartney, in his interview with Steve Richards on page 18, trying to marry the corduroy-trouser and mobile-phone tendencies - the Prime Minister goes to a posh West End dinner and produces what the papers call an outburst. His most widely reported remarks, to the effect that everybody who works in the public sector is a backward- looking, unenterprising stick-in-the-mud, were unscripted. But let us start with the speech put out by his press office.

It begins with the following statement: "When we created the New Labour Party, we did so for a purpose." The purpose, as the speech progresses, turns out to be to champion entrepreneurs. But who, in this context, is "we"? What is this "New Labour Party", flaunting its upper-case "N"? It has appeared on no ballot paper; it has no constitution, no membership, no procedures. There is simply a Labour Party, whose members and supporters may be forgiven for wondering when exactly they agreed to this "purpose".

None of this is to deny the underlying soundness of Tony Blair's message. For more than a century, Britain has had an unhealthy attitude to entrepreneurs: the right-wing elite regarded them as below the salt; the left regarded them as antisocial. Even the entrepreneurs themselves aspired to become landed gentry or merchant bankers. Prejudice against the vulgarities of industry and commerce suffuses every level of the education system. This great British failing has been analysed by numerous historians and by many politicians. Mr Blair rightly wants to change the culture.

But we no more want a society where everybody aspires to be Richard Branson than one where everybody aspires to be the Duke of Westminster. For one thing, not everybody can be an entrepreneur, or even a chap living on his wits, like Charles Leadbeater (page 25). "Most of us," Richard Sennett observed in an NS essay (31 May), "are destined to be employees." We should not imply that there is something dishonourable in so being; and, if we do, we can hardly blame those who decide to indulge an alternative form of enterprise, through crime, the black economy or the social security system. Equally important, we should recognise that people who work in the public sector may have distinct aspirations, values and heroes. This was one of the great blind spots of Thatcherism; it looks as if it is a blind spot for Blairism, too. "Give people life chances," Mr Blair said, "but recognise they will only take them if they think they are going to be rewarded." Quite so. But some people prefer not to take chances and settle instead for the securities and certainties of the public sector. They get satisfaction from their relationships with patients or pupils, not from the thrill of a risky new commercial development. They are not wrong - they are just different kinds of people, and if they did not exist, it is hard to see how most public services would survive.

The point is not that efficiency, competitiveness and other values associated with private firms should be entirely barred from the public sector. It is that they involve trade-offs against other values, such as universality, equity, compassion and democracy, as Bill New lucidly explains in a new pamphlet on the NHS for the Institute for Public Policy Research. Rescue missions for those lost at sea or trapped in potholes are never conducted efficiently: they continue long beyond any realistic hope of recovery. Likewise, NHS treatments often continue even when the prospects for a cure have all but disappeared. But to suggest any change in these practices leads to public outcry. That happened with Jaymee Bowen when the child was denied further treatment for cancer; it happens when doctors suggest giving a lower priority to old people or to smokers on the grounds that any benefit they get from care would be much less than that accruing to younger and healthier people. Such conflicts run right through the public sector. To the people who work in it, change often seems to threaten the older public service values or to reduce the time they can spend with children or patients. That is why teachers, for example, are suspicious of performance-related pay or of new schemes for testing and recording.

Altruism and other traditional public service values are hopelessly out of fashion. Yet many Labour members may reasonably think that if their party had a "purpose", it was to champion these, not the spirit of the entrepreneur. Certainly one would expect a Labour prime minister to find some room for them in his rhetoric. Until Mr Blair does so, the core voters will continue to fret.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?