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18 December 2000

Hail to the new Labour Chief

If Al Gore has indeed lost, our PM should not mourn him. It was George W Bush who ran for office on

By Stephen Pollard

As I write, the new Labour candidate in the United States presidential election is moving towards the White House. By this, I do not mean that some hitherto unnoticed twist in the US courts has favoured Al Gore. I mean that – despite Tony Blair’s natural symmetry with Gore, a fellow founder of the international Third Way brotherhood – the candidate who came closest to the principles of British new Labour was George W Bush.

What was the single most important difference that the prefix “new” made to Labour, and equally to the Democrats? It showed that they were no longer the “tax and spend” party; that it was not, as new Labour put it in the 1997 manifesto, how much you spent, but how you spent. Save and invest; prudence with a purpose; a balanced budget: take your pick of the new Labour/Democrat phrases, and you come up with the theme of the Bush campaign – and, equally, with the antithesis of the Gore campaign, which reverted to the old Labour/Democrat tactic of wooing voters by stuffing their mouths with gold.

The new parties won in Britain in 1997 and in the US in 1992 and 1996 because they rejected their old habits of chasing after every sectional interest and tried, instead, to attract the broad middle classes. Instead of dallying with protectionism, they became ardent free-traders. Instead of siding automatically with trade unions, they worshipped at the business shrine. Instead of attempting to direct the economy, they realised that government tends to get in the way of economic growth, not to foster it. Instead of instantly turning to the state for a solution to any problem, they looked pragmatically to voluntary groups, businesses, charities and, only when appropriate, the state. And instead of assuming that the only legitimate provider of public services was the state, they looked to contracting out to the private sector.

Gore appears to have forgotten all that. On every one of those policy and tactical hinges, his platform swung back to an old Democrat approach. Trade unions? Show him their money. Federal spending? There was no problem that could not be solved if more was spent on it. Economic growth? Here was a 200-page plan; the vice-president published a document thick with detail of fiscal tinkering and government action.

Most striking of all was the failure of Gore – the man who destroyed Ross Perot as a political force by unravelling his opposition to Nafta and crushing him in debate – to mention free trade at any point in his campaign. Worse still for the vice-president, while he was busy forgetting what it meant to be a new Democrat, his Republican opponent was busy remembering. He ran a model new Democrat campaign, in both tactical and policy terms.

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Take one of the most pressing British and American issues: healthcare reform. The systems may be different and the problems varied. But they share a common foundation: demand is ever-growing. Labour’s response has been, right or wrong, to try to “modernise” the management and delivery of healthcare and to ration it explicitly through the National Institute of Clinical Excellence. Gore’s solution was to pick the wealthiest section of the American population – pensioners – and bribe them to vote for him with a new entitlement to prescription drugs, which will explode, rather than contain, costs. Bush’s plan is for modest tinkering based on the private sector. It will shake no trees, as they say; but nor will it commit the system to ever-growing entitlements.

Just as the British state pension system needed reform, so did the US system. Bush took a gamble and made social security (pension) reform, based on allowing contributions to be privately invested, a central plank of his platform. The vice-president’s response was to accuse him of “risky” schemes and to propose instead . . . well, nothing. The Gore approach was to pretend that the problem does not exist and to wait for those defenceless, easily led pensioners to flock over to him. This was just the sort of political leadership that old Labour and old Democrats used to offer – carry on as before, and it will soon be someone else’s problem.

Education provides the starkest example. Bush proposed experiments with vouchers (whose most committed proponents in the US are now inner-city black activists) and more charter schools (in effect, independent schools that don’t charge fees). Exactly what we will see in a Blair second term, in fact. Gore, who has long been in the pocket of the teachers’ unions – which have far greater influence in the US than in Britain – instead attacked the few existing voucher schemes and reverted to old Democrat type, his education platform offering a lot more money, but nothing else.

Yet Gore’s running-mate, Joe Lieberman, is one of the leading proponents of vouchers. Lieberman was forced to shut up about education during the campaign. And when Will Marshall, the president of the new Democrat think-tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (of which Lieberman is a member), was asked to say what was wrong with Bush’s plan, he responded: “How can I? It’s mine.” Nothing better illustrates the reality behind the party labels than this. The Republican candidate’s education policy was written by his Democrat opponent’s running-mate, and was so opposed by the Democrat candidate that he banned the running-mate from speaking about the subject.

Republican, Democrat – who cares? It looks as if a new Labour president will be sworn in next month.

Stephen Pollard is a columnist on the Daily Express; he moves to the Times next month