Forget about Old Labour, Mr Blair, and worry about the Europhiles
Unlike the Prime Minister, they are fearsomely ideological in their devotion to The Cause
Wednesday 23 June 1999
In his speech marking two years of the New Deal on youth employment, Mr Blair politely told the carpers and fretters to get stuffed. In vain did Peter Hain and his sensitive consorts feel "gratuitously offended" by Blairite moderation. In vain did the GMB's John Edmonds holler for a "redirection" of policy, and Roy Hattersley threaten (again) dire consequences if the Old Labour beast is not kept quiescent. Mr Blair, not for the first time and not for the last, completely ignored them and concentrated on what he does best - communicating with the country at large.
Latching on to the dire turnout and Labour defeat in the Euro-elections is pure sophistry on the part of those who have been waiting for Mr Blair to show an exposed flank and are sinking their teeth into the first available patch of flesh. Their claim that neglecting the party's working-class base accounted for the poor Labour turnout and result is leaky. The elections were not fought on left versus right issues, but on broad choice between more or less integration in Europe. Hence the result.
The real threat to Mr Blair's authority now comes not from those parts of the left whose imprecations impress only their own tribe, but from disappointed Europhiles. They are showing signs of attempting to do to this Government what Tory Eurosceptics did to the last - demanding more territory that the Prime Minister can possibly give without losing support elsewhere. The more cautious Mr Blair's statements on British entry, the more inclined they are to demand that he should head the Charge of the Euro Light Brigade. Unlike the Prime Minister, they are fearsomely ideological - nay theological - in their attachment to The Cause.
Mr Blair's retreat on the Euro has angered senior Tory Euro-allies such as Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine who know that they went too far for decency's sake in their intimacies with the Government and now fear that their objective may be thwarted. It must be said that a lot of New Labour EMU-enthusiasts feel rather bruised by the volte-face too.
So during the next year Mr Blair will feel a lot more pressure from a wider number of sources than he is accustomed to handling. The left is unlikely to pipe down. Complaints about neglect of the grass-roots are part of the eternal recurrence of Labour politics. Around the time of the 1984 conference, when Neil Kinnock lost his temper in a good cause and blazed his righteous wrath against Militant, I attended a local constituency meeting in the North-East. A motion was duly agreed, congratulating Mr Kinnock on his performance. "Aye, but," came a voice from the back, "it's alright hitting at people like Hatton when it suits you, but they're the ones who turn out on the knocker come election time." The thought that an army of Trotskyites on the nation's doorsteps might not be an unalloyed blessing for Labour's vote was beyond him.
Mr Blair could easily have boasted yesterday about the minimum wage, the substantial rise in child benefits, help with nursery care, the proposed working families tax credits and bonuses for pensioners. All these benefit working-class families. But he is wary - and rightly so - of lapsing into a class-based rhetoric, thereby sacrificing his One Nation identity. Doubtless this blatant turning of a deaf ear to Old Labour will be seen by some as arrogance on Mr Blair's part. From the complainants' point of view, it is something far worse than mere hauteur. It is proof of Mr Blair's firm awareness that their advice is a seductive trap, intended to ensnare him into a more leftwing posture. He has no intention of falling for this particular mug's game.
If anything, the Prime Minister has become less attached to the idea of the Labour Party and more to New Labour as a still-evolving centrist political force. Call it the Third Way if you must. One early Blairite intention which went badly astray was that of building of a mass party membership around the Blairite spindle, an aim echoed in the last manifesto's sub-Sinn Fein phrase: "The Labour Party is the political arm of the British people as a whole." Er, no it isn't, the British people replied. A lot of those who had joined the party in a flush of fervour for nice Tony, lapsed when he was safely ensconced in Downing Street. In a less tradition- bound society where party allegiances are more fluid than they were, that is hardly surprising. People will dip in and out of the political process.
If Mr Blair continues to apply caution to the uncertain project of European Monetary Union, he can only profit electorally. But he also needs to show the voters that the promises explicit and inherent in the famous Project are being kept. To that extent, Mr Blair should worry about not being New Labour enough. By the election, the Government needs to be able to point to solid improvements in the public services and make clear what further and bolder reforming strategies it has up its sleeve for the next term if it is to maintain a sense of momentum, rather than fighting a rearguard action.
The present approach to education consists of centralised drive to raise standards through prescriptive interventions like the literacy hour. Fine, as far as they go. For primary schools unable to teach children to read and write by the age of 11, some draconian measure was needed. But this dirigisme will not achieve the net increase in performance of schools Mr Blair pledged, let alone tackle a still under-recognised problem if the widespread under-achievement of the wide middle-ability band continues. At the same time, the Government remains shy of discussing any change in the structures of schools. Privatising the most appalling failing LEAs is a start. But if structural change was needed there, why not elsewhere in Britain's inflexible and bureaucratic state school system?
On health, new thinking has not yet even begun, despite the fact that opinion polls show a sensible public acceptance that the NHS will have to alter radically in the next ten years. We limped through last winter on a wing, Frank Dobson's prayers and a single, over-hyped cash-injection.
If Mr Edmonds wants the NHS to be at the "centrepoint" of New Labour's intentions, let him have it. But that means leaving behind the increasingly ragged myth that the service can be universal, solely tax-payer funded, every service ubiquitously free for everyone, and yet still keep pace with our expectations of a high standard of care. It is not slaughtering too many scared cows which is this Government's more worrying trait, but sustaining too many sacred illusions.
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