A time to dream again
New Labour's policies will lead to a more equal society. So why doesn't it say so? ByNeal Lawson
A political party of the left cannot sustain itself for long if it remains devoid of a dream. Where does new Labour stand in the field of dreams? A whole swathe of government measures will make important differences to people's lives: the minimum wage, the new deal, working family tax credits, more money for health and education, constitutional reform and the beginnings of welfare reform. What is more, the policies will have one undeniable consequence - to redistribute power and wealth from the haves to the have-nots.
Yet the government is reluctant to trumpet this fact. We have the start of redistribution, but only by the back door and by stealth. Does this gap between words and deeds matter?
There are three dangers: first, that the sum of actions will not be greater than the parts (lots of dots but a failure to join them up); second, that without championing what it does, the government will lack popular backing for the next stage of reform; third, that without a coherent vision, the new Labour coalition could come under strain.
Now, I believe, is the time for new Labour to define a much clearer reason for its existence. The price of a failure to do so will be increasing disunity. New Labour was a coalition of the old right, the soft left, the amorphous Tribunite centre, the trade unions and political opportunists. It was held together by the overwhelming desire to win, but it was never coherent and nor was it built to last. The differences are already there, below the surface; notably over electoral reform, tax and family policy, responses to globalisation, and Europe. The old right and old left in the unions are flexing their muscles; not one loyalist trade union leader is left. The once marginalised hard left has regrouped and gained seats on Labour's national executive.
And as we have seen in recent weeks, the tension between day-to-day news management and long-term political strategy is beginning to tell. So far, the controllers have been better at their jobs than the visionaries.
The leadership knows that, in the heat of government, the glue of coalition is melting. That is why so much time and effort has been invested in the "Third Way", to find a common theme that gives people a reason to stay inside the new Labour tent. But the "Third Way" will only succeed if it can become a coherent ideological model.
What should be the essence of that model? The leadership talks of modernisation but modernisation is not itself benign; it must have a purpose. Left modernisation can be defined - not very snappily, I know - as economically egalitarian, socially liberal and democratically pluralist. But even this rallying cry needs a sense of priority. I would argue that the first - equality - is the most important. Indeed, it is what defines the left: attitudes to inequality form the most enduring division between left and right.
The harsh truth for the British left is that it has learnt to live with levels of inequality that simply wouldn't be tolerated in other similar EU countries. Not only have we accepted too much of the Thatcherite legacy but we have also avoided the issue through bogus debates on whether we mean equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. The modernising left should mean both. In various ways, not least through the Social Exclusion Unit, the government is taking steps to combat poverty. But there is no overarching crusade against poverty and social injustice that is signalled as the hallmark of what this government stands for.
If it were to launch such a crusade, new Labour would no doubt make enemies. But you define yourself in politics by who your enemies are. New Labour is trying to govern as if we were "one nation", but that was just a clever election sound-bite. We should remember that the phrase was coined by people on the right who wanted to maintain social inequality but knew that saying so wouldn't win many votes.
Think of where new Labour stands on Europe. In the EU, left modernisers ought to see opportunities to entrench modern social democracy and to reduce the growing inequalities created by globalisation. But the lack of debate on issues such as tax harmonisation shows the paucity of British left thinking on Europe. The reality is that the German model of greater social solidarity appears to work. The Germans work fewer hours, but they are more productive and they have a better standard of living. A Labour government should not be positioned on the neo-liberal ground of deregulated markets because Britain has failed to build the institutions of social partnership required to equal Rhineland success.
A commitment to a more equal society should be the leitmotiv that runs through almost every aspect of the government's work. In many ways it already does; but new Labour fails to articulate the message, fails to explain who wins and who loses, what the next steps are and where it will end up. It seems that the present strategy is to under-promise and over-deliver. That may be a good approach for a management consultancy but a political party has to win hearts as well as minds.
Oliver Cromwell said that "we will strike while the iron is hot but we will make the iron hot by striking". It is all very well to say that true radicalism will come in a second term, but it won't unless ministers speak a more ambitious language now. That language must be about the creation of a more equal society and the aim must be to make the principle popular. If new Labour stops believing in that, it stops being on the left.
The writer is managing editor of the new Labour quarterly "Renewal". A longer version of his article is in the winter 1999 issue, £6 (cheques to Renewal) from L&W, 99a Wallis Road, London E9 5LN
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