Time to deliver on the family; FOCUS: THAT BABY

As well as being a public relations gift, the new Blair may push the `care economy' to the top of the political agenda

oliticians - however ugly or attractive they are - love to be seen kissing babies. It's good politics. New Labour, skilled as it is in spin and news management, has been handed a gift of a PR opportunity with the news that Cherie Blair is expecting a child. Far from being a private moment between family and friends, news of her pregnancy has become a public event. The personal is now most definitely political.

To the cynics, the prospect of a millennium baby looks like a gift from the gods generating a feel-good factor that will propel Tony Blair back into Number 10 for a second term. At the next election there will be no need for photo opportunities of the Prime Minister embracing the nation's children. He will have his very own. This is President Kennedy meets Diana, Princess of Wales - the nation's first family turned into soap opera.

To be fair to the Blairs, family values have long been the Prime Minister's passion. One of the most striking memos quoted by Philip Gould in his book The Unfinished Revolution was written by Blair himself during his campaign for leadership of the Labour Party in 1994. In it he described his own marketing strategy in note form: "Strong convictions based around Christian socialism. Family more to life than politics".

In power, no opportunity has been lost to sell this message. The photograph of Blair and his family on the Christmas card from Downing Street in 1998 was the epitome of homespun modern-day family values. Now there will be a fresh set of images to capture the nation's attention.

New Labour is a past master at what Americans call the "politics of biography". Tony Blair intuitively understands that the most successful political leaders are those who tell a wider story by embodying and personifying change. As a dual earner career couple inhabiting No 10, the Blairs certainly have a strong symbolic appeal. They act as a reference point, a mirror to our own lives. We see them juggling work and life, pioneering new roles, wrestling for that elusive balance between work and life.

At first glance, they appear reassuringly to be one of us, and yet are also a more glamorous, more successful, more sophisticated version of us. And that is why we are fascinated by them. The Blairs' appeal is precisely that they offer not just another dose of reality, but the promise of something better. But that promise will have legitimacy only if the Government is able to underpin grand symbolic gestures about modern-day family values with tangible policies.

Since 1997 the Government has made some important progress. The foundations of a modern progressive agenda for families in the 21st century have been laid. Mr Blair has made a commitment to eliminating child poverty in the space of a generation. The married couples' tax allowance has been scrapped and its resources invested in children. The working families' tax credit which focuses on making work pay for low-income families - sole- earner households as well as families where both partners work - will aid this process. Reform of child support, announced as a package of measures in last week's Queen's Speech, goes some way towards this.

These are important building blocks, but in the months and years ahead the Government is likely to come under pressure to deliver change on a more far-reaching scale than it has done so far, and the prospect of a Blair baby throws family matters into sharper relief than ever before. A whole range of issues - issues of time, of equality between the sexes, of caring, of how one achieves a sustainable balance between work and the rest of life - look set to move to the top of the agenda. In this sense, their own new baby may well add a new sense of urgency.

Seasoned political campaigners understand the power of gesture politics and will use this to great effect. Activists now have a powerful symbol around which to hang their campaigns, challenging the Government, pushing it to go further and faster than it might like in key policy directions. These pressures are likely to increase in the months and years ahead.

The choices the Blairs make will draw comment, comparison and criticism as well as delight. They will need to seek counsel to ensure that the personal decisions they make resonate with the Government's own political agenda. Eyes will be on them. Will they use the NHS as they have said they intend to? Will the Prime Minister take time off the job and spend it bonding with the new-born? Will he champion new ways of working and opt for a sabbatical to be with the baby? Will he evolve a new leadership style and delegate more as a consequence, as he fosters a greater sense of teamwork in his Cabinet?

A government which has truly mastered the politics of biography, and does not just exploit it, should understand how important such gestures can be in setting examples to the nation. There are other implications. Although the Blairs are a privileged couple compared with many, the reality of adapting their way of life to the needs of a new baby may well reveal the limits and the sheer timidity of the Government's agenda in this area, and highlight the need for root-and-branch reform. The Government is likely to come under pressure to deliver further tangible economic benefits to families in the form of paid parental leave, as well as finding more imaginative ways of valuing our care economy, and allowing people to take time off flexibly from the labour market during their working lives.

The next key challenge for the Government will be to show that its work ethic, and the policy agenda that supports this, will be supplemented by a new ethic of care. This means addressing some hard questions about business and its responsibilities for the care and nurture of the next generation. It means asking whether a tough regulatory approach is the way forward. Above all, it means taking our care economy as seriously in the future as we have taken the formal economy in the past. And it means actively promoting male responsibility in the home sphere.

Here too the personal may intersect with the political. It is possible that the Prime Minister's experience of nurturing a new-born for a fourth time will radicalise him further. Perhaps it will make him realise that there are alternative models of modernisation - choices that need to be made as a society as we thrash out the terms of a new deal for tomorrow's families. For in the end New Labour's family policy does not yet confront head on the really tricky issues: of production, and reproduction, who cares, time versus money, gender and responsibility, inequality between men and women, between poor families and well-off ones.

The great irony is that the prospect of a millennium baby at No 10 not only moves family politics centre-stage. It also throws into sharper relief than ever before the unresolved tensions and faultlines in the Government's agenda, and looks set to reveal the gaps in New Labour's thinking as much as its successes. The year 2000 is shaping up to be the year of delivery for New Labour in more ways than one.

Helen Wilkinson is the editor of `Family Business', a forthcoming Demos Collection. She is a member of the parental leave campaign, which can be contacted via Maternity Alliance, 45 Beech Street, London, EC2P.

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