The consumer should not be sovereign

It's that time in a government's life again: lost its way . . . stands at a crossroads . . . needs to reassert its ends . . . find sense of purpose . . . vision . . . renewal . . . inspire supporters . . . tell a story . . . glad, confident morning once more. Even Margaret Thatcher seemed briefly to lose her momentum early in her second term before recovering and pressing on to wreck the state school system, bring the masses on to the streets in protest against the poll tax, and poison our relations with the rest of Europe. Prime ministers with a glint in the eye are dangerous. After about seven years in office, they start to pursue their pet schemes as though they had been muttering for years in the corner of the saloon bar "Now if I were prime minister . . . " and had suddenly woken up to realise they were actually in charge and there was nobody to stop them. The idea that Tony Blair is suddenly going to change his ways after all this time - and see the merits of the public sector, trade unions, fair taxation, stiff regulation and not sucking up to the White House - is preposterous. If Labour wants a fresh vision as opposed to just another term in office, it will have to get itself a new leader.

Blairism and the Third Way, it is now clear, were dead ends for the left. They were modifications of Thatcherism to make it more palatable to social democrats. What was needed was a modification of social democracy to update it and make it more palatable to the wider public, which was never wholly seduced by neoliberalism. The manifesto for the new group Compass - drafted by an impeccably social democratic panel that includes the head of Catalyst, the new, union-backed think-tank, as well as the head of Mr Blair's favourite, the IPPR - puts its finger on the problem. "Too often, new Labour seems happier on the side of the private sector and at war with public service ethos and public sector workers." Mr Blair insists that while the NHS and state schools, for example, should remain free at the point of delivery, their users will expect to be treated as consumers just as they would by their local Chinese restaurant. But as Compass points out: "The language of consumer choice risks [people] treating public services like a supermarket, seeking compensation when anything goes wrong, while taking responsibility in terms of co-production for less and less."

This is new Labour's most profound failure: it has not restored faith in the public realm or, more generally, in collective solutions. Its obsessive managerialism, its belief in the instant gratification of consumer preferences, its insistence that everything must work efficiently (even if it doesn't, in fact, usually work at all) blinds it to broader values such as social solidarity and co-operation. Trade unions, for example, may sometimes contribute to economic efficiency, as wiser employers recognise, but that is not their main purpose, which is to give collective expression to working people's interests and views. In so doing, they may sometimes inconvenience consumers or - heaven forfend - shave a fraction of a percentage point off economic growth. That is not a reason for keeping unions weak or treating them as though they were threats to public safety. Nor should the consumer be treated as sovereign. The consumer is usually also a producer, a citizen and a member of a family. These other roles in life, and the rights and responsibilities they carry, should be equally if not more important.

Whether or not Margaret Thatcher ever said that there is no such thing as society, the attitude expressed by that phrase was her legacy to Britain, and it is one that a social dem- ocratic government has to confront. Britain has lost a sense of the public good, most notably on transport and the environment. Significantly, the example that Compass picks out of how we can "escape the consumption treadmill" is the congestion charging scheme in London - admittedly made possible by Labour legislation, but actually introduced by a mayor who was forced out of the party.

Instead of extending social, non-commercial values, new Labour has encouraged the market further to permeate the public sector. For example, its latest "payment by results" proposals for the NHS - which are far more significant than those for foundation hospitals - would allow private centres to sell medical diagnosis and treatment services to primary care trusts if they can convince the trusts that they offer better quality. The focus would then be on making and enforcing contractual arrangements with private firms, not on improving NHS staff and facilities. The public sector thus increasingly becomes a mediator between consumers and the private sector, not an entity in its own right, with its own mission and its own values.

Let good folk beat their children

One can always rely on the Liberal Democrat conference to offer original and surprising ideas - rather as one used to rely on Monty Python's Flying Circus. This year, Lembit Opik MP, speaking at a fringe meeting, exceeded expectations. Good drivers with a sound safety record should be allowed to drive at 90mph instead of the usual 70mph limit, he proposed. By thus rewarding good behaviour as well as punishing bad, a new approach to politics would be pioneered. Indeed, yes. Responsible parents who read bedtime stories and organise family visits to historic homes could be allowed to beat their children. Employers who pay full corporation tax could be permitted to sack workers instantly. Burglars who give away a proportion of their loot to charity could be excused prosecution. Mr Opik says he is not putting his idea up for consideration as official party policy. He is surely too modest.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Nepotism: is it back?