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19 June 2000

I am still a Blairite, but is Blair?

Tony Wright MPargues that new Labour has lost the big picture and produced a politics for middle man

By Tony Wright MP

I am a Blairite. At least, I always thought I was. It’s the description that routinely precedes my name in the newspapers. I did, however, spot a reference to me as a “former Blairite” recently, and a journalist phoned last week to ask if he should include me in his list of assorted Labour malcontents.

I clearly need to work out what is going on, if only because it may have a wider significance for current arguments about the state of the Project. Beyond the lazy journalism, there is a real sense of this being (in Blair-speak) a genuinely defining moment for the new Labour enterprise.

I became a Blairite (even before Blair, I like to think) because I wanted the centre left to become the dominant force in British society, as I believed was possible if Labour was reformed and modernised. Drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the “liberal socialism” that was forged in the early part of the 20th century – as new liberalism mingled with ethical socialism – the opportunity existed to put together a powerful, modern progressive movement. This would combine markets with social justice, rights with duties, and subject both state services and market operations to public-interest disciplines. A new language of community, emphasising society as a common enterprise in which we all have a stake, would articulate and integrate these arguments into a coherent public philosophy.

Above all others, Tony Blair seemed to have the vision of what was required, and the courage to bring it about. His determination to do battle on Clause Four, when others urged evasion, showed his intent. Labour found a new language and a new audience, confirming that the idea of a progressive majority in Britain was not a chimera.

Where stands all this now? Some of those who supply critical answers may be safely ignored. They never shared the vision in the first place. Others want to play off old Labour against new, the heartlands against middling Britain, already forgetting the elementary lesson that a progressive majority requires just that, a majority. Then there are those who give only grudging credit to the government for all the many good things it is doing. Yet, when all this is properly said, something is clearly not right. There is a problem at the centre of the Blair project, which even the ill-mannered ladies of the Women’s Institute could not fail to notice. Unless this problem is attended to, there will be tears before bedtime.

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Unsure of what it is, Blairism lacks the confidence to become what it might be. Its fuzzy centre leaves the party uncertain and the electorate suspecting hollowness and spinnery. What is lacking is the sense of a central mission or purpose. There is much tacking, but not enough steering. There are policy initiatives galore, but somehow the big picture that would make sense of the various parts never comes into sharp enough focus. The obsession with presentation has been at the expense of theory and strategy. It is ironic that a government that has made presentation so central should have left people so uncertain as to what, at bottom, it is really about.

Perhaps, as some suggest, a Mark II Blairism has replaced the original. How else to explain the distance between the expansive, risk-taking, realigning, history-shaping instincts of the one, and the cautious, controlling temper of the other? One makes the weather, the other dishes out umbrellas. Or perhaps there was a confusion in the original, which I (and others) did not see at the time. I thought the project was to make our ideas into the dominant ideas of society, in an enterprise of advocacy and persuasion and example, not to take the dominant ideas we found lying around after the Thatcher years and make them into our ideas. My big tent was designed to be capacious and inviting enough to attract people in, not a smothering blanket which pretended that everybody was already inside.

My first real doubt came a year or two ago when Labour’s junior education minister received a standing ovation from the assembled public school heads of the Headmasters’ Conference after announcing that partnership had now replaced antagonism. This was seen as a great presentational triumph at the time. It reminded me of Tony Crosland’s remark that if we simply abolished grammar schools and left the public schools alone then we would have made matters worse rather than better. When the recent Oxbridge row erupted, we had a response, but no strategy. This is not an argument for finding enemies, but it is an argument for finding a strategy that clearly expresses social democratic values. Then people will at least know what we are about.

Some argue that the whole point is that they should not know. That we should only redistribute by stealth. That even the civic purpose of taxation should not be mentioned in case people get the wrong idea about us. That radical ideas (for example, on NHS funding) should be ruled off-limits because they might frighten the horses. That we can make a constitutional revolution without exciting people about democratic possibilities. That inequalities can be removed and opportunities opened up without touching the taxes, schools or privileges of the rich and powerful. That lions and lambs can graze together on the sun-kissed uplands of the Third Way.

A durable progressive majority can never be assembled on these terms. You can never deregulate enough to satisfy the deregulators, never cut taxes enough to mollify the tax-cutters, never out- Widdecombe the right, never permanently appease the Daily Mail, never love business enough to make it love you enough. The only alternative is to be what you are, or should be: the party that makes public services work, prevents a market economy becoming a market society, opens up opportunities and extends democracy.

This is inconsistent with timidity or vacuousness. It requires clarity of purpose and some coherent philosophical support. A mantra that says “what matters is what works” is no substitute. The perceived theoretical vapidity of new Labour comes at a price. It has, for example, produced a pensions policy that is intellectually impeccable, morally defensible, economically sensible – and politically disastrous.

It has also produced a political style that is often downright embarrassing. We have the sterile verblessness of ministerial speeches delivered de haut en bas without the flicker of original thought or the passion of real argument. This is a politics for middle managers.

The big picture has to be brought back into focus. Seventy years ago, R H Tawney identified what he saw as Labour’s gravest weakness: “It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants . . . Being without clear convictions as to its own meaning and purpose, it is deprived of the dynamic which only convictions can supply.”

I am a Blairite because the new social democracy born out of Labour’s renewal both corrected this historic weakness and opened the way to a progressive majority in Britain. I just hope that Tony Blair is still this kind of Blairite, too.

The writer is MP for Cannock Chase, and a former PPS to Lord Irvine. He recently edited (with Andrew Gamble) New Social Democracy (Blackwell, £12.99)

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