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20 November 1998

Hard times for the lucky and the lazy

Where is British politics heading? David Halpern found some answers at a Harvard seminar

By David Halpern

Last weekend saw an extraordinary gathering. Around 30 key thinkers and policy experts from across Europe met in the plush surroundings of Harvard University for a three- day seminar to review Labour’s first 18 months in government. It is unlikely to attract the press attention of the recent Marxism Today weekend, but its influence on policy-makers will be much greater.

It’s not often that members of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit engage openly with ideological foes such as David Willetts, with US, Dutch, German, French and Scandinavian contributors also present. By the end of the weekend, we could see the outlines of the philosophy that will define British politics in the next decade.

Here are four of the major conclusions. First, we are looking at the recapture of civic liberalism by the left. The phrase “civic liberalism” is bound to worry some of those locked into the battles between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Others, particularly on the right, may greet it with despair as they realise that the closer relationship between the two parties is not a cynical electoral pact, but something based on a much deeper movement in UK political thinking.

Second, this emerging philosophy is not, for the most part, exportable. This may come as a disappointment to Tony Blair, who saw the Third Way as an international development in political thinking. While there are obvious overlaps in the pressures on nation states, only the very intellectually stubborn would ignore the persisting differences in the starting points, policies and fundamental ideologies of other centre-left states. In France, what would have been the civic liberalism of Blair was blown out of the water by the mass strikes of 1995. In Germany, there remains a virtual absence of liberal thought of any variety. Indeed, the SPD, which has had no major overhaul of its policy programme since before the fall of the Berlin Wall, is most likely to move away from the emerging civic liberalism of British thought.

Third, the dialogue of the Third Way conceals important policy choices. For example, how much can we, or should we, reduce the effects of brute luck in society? Most commonly, this focuses on income inequality, but it is wider than that. For some, it is a technical question – we should do as much as we possibly can. For others, the issue remains more ideological.

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Fourth, a question mark hangs over the ideological structure of the parties in Britain. The opposition parties, particularly the Tories, have been left in a very unattractive political space. On the level of principle, not just electoral strategy, the “enemies” of new Labour are no longer clearly class-based, rather they are “the lucky and the lazy”. Those who take benefits without wanting to work; company directors who pay themselves huge rewards for poor performance or for control of a monopoly; those who are privileged through inheritance or luck – these are the people who will come under pressure. But the efforts of the hard-working employee and the productive entrepreneur will be acknowledged and rewarded.

So what are the other parties to do? Clearly, they need to reconfigure. The Conservatives could have rapidly reconfigured to fight new Labour on its own ground. But, as one contributor pointed out, they chose Hague over Clarke and have lost this opportunity for the foreseeable future. Anyhow, this strategy, as US politics shows, brings competition for personnel rather than competition for ideas.

Another option is to create smaller, more interest-specific parties such as a stronger green party, a party to the left of the Labour Party, and reconfigured Liberal and Conservative parties. But a reconfiguration on that scale is possible only if electoral pressures change. And that argument leads directly to full proportional representation. I would be uneasy to see this in the Commons where, as Lord Jenkins has argued, there is a case for a system that delivers strong central government, not least to balance the growth of devolved powers. Full PR for the House of Lords is the obvious answer.

Perhaps this is the toughest test of all for the government. Why on earth should it pursue reforms that will improve the effectiveness of parties that it has worked so hard to defeat? The answer is that, ultimately, the interests of the nation are more important than those of any political party.

The writer is a director of Nexus, the policy and ideas network, and a lecturer at Cambridge University