How liberal is new Labour?

Blair and Jack Straw will beat the law and order drum all the way to the election. Is their new conservatism a ploy to make the party more electable or does it reflect a deep-dyed Victorian moralism? Polly Toynbee reports decent, disciplined and orderly. If they win, however that is But what about pluralism, freedom and diversity and w
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The Independent Online
Now you see it, now you don't. New Labour flashes a bright coin before our eyes, only to flick it away as soon as we reach out to grasp it. Key words, ideas, sentiments and symbols are lit up before us, full of significance, moral catchphrases pregnant with diaphanous meaning - single parents, squeegee merchants, crime, bad neighbours, community and self-reliance. But as soon as we challenge them and ask what they mean, what policy, what practical applications? Then the words vanish again like a mirage.

They have served their purpose, just by being spoken. The party has planted an idea, staked out a territory and told the world that new Labour is moral, sensible, not chained to the politically correct and far removed from the bad old days of the GLC's myriad minority committees. But has Labour's traditional role as standard-bearer for liberal progressive values departed, too? Or is it merely hiding behind the conjuror's fingers?

Like playing on a xylophone of our sensibilities, Labour has brilliantly struck raw Tory voting nerves, beating out a new tune that is often distinctly right wing in timbre: Christian Democrat, churchy, decent, disciplinarian and orderly (Straw: "The first duty of any government should be the guarantee of a quiet life").

Gone is the praise for pluralism, freedom and diversity, that instinctive liberal siding with the under-dog. Sometimes the under-dog or "aggressive beggar" even gets an extra kicking from Labour. Do they mean all this, or is it just the cleverly seductive music of vote-getting?

We do not know. No policy is set, no promises made and different players play different tunes to suit their audiences. We can only guess at what the final symphony will be.

It would be quite wrong to imagine, though, that Labour was ever a happily liberal party. Harold Wilson lead a canny coalition of Hampstead and Huyton, the chattering classes coming to an accommodation with the cloth caps, encompassing both Roy Jenkins the radical reformer, and Jim Callaghan the policeman's friend. There was a tacit trade-off: the illiberal "hang 'em, flog 'em" cloth caps agreed to let the chatterers abolish capital punishment and anti-homosexual laws in exchange for the closed shop and collective bargaining.

All that fell apart in chaos when Michael Foot could restrain neither a trade unionism that had become rampant and irresponsible nor a liberal left that had been overrun by the right-on lunacies of the likes of Ken Livingstone.

Now Tony Blair emerges as the gleaming phoenix, not rebuilding the old party but creating a new one. Yet in Hampstead they fear that liberal interests have been abandoned in a new marriage of convenience that excludes them altogether - the self-interest and crude populism of Essex wedded to the morality of the Christian Church. Neither of these is to their taste.

It has fallen to Paddy Ashdown to fire a warning shot in a thoughtful, but impassioned speech last month, staking out a clear Liberal Democrat claim to those old liberal values left behind by new Labour. While making clear his broad approval for most of what new Labour stands for - after all, he hopes to do business with them - he has found some clear pink water that gives voting Liberal a genuinely different flavour. He plants the thought that the best possible outcome of the next election would be New Labour in coalition with Lib Dems, vote-catching Christianity tempered by decent caring old unelectable liberalism.

Ashdown points with alarm to Labour's infatuation with American communitarianism and the work of Amitai Etzioni, the high priest of new left moralism. He fears this tyranny of the majority crushes any dissenting voice, ruling by collective shame through the law of the lace curtain. Lib Dems distrust Labour's commitment to constitutional reform: for them, it is the only true guarantee that locks genuine pluralism into politics for ever.

Ashdown looks with anxiety at Labour's eagerness to make a scapegoat of the underclass. He despises the way Labour avoids unpopular issues of conscience. While he spoke up boldly for the rights of Hong Kong citizens to come to Britain, Labour did not. Tony Blair took a trip around the Far East that missed out tricky Hong Kong altogether and he came back instead full of alarming praise for orderly Singaporean values, where chewing gum, spitting and graffiti earn the lash, and conformity is the one great social value.

Roy Hattersley has, with some self-mockery, set up his stall as the "New Left". He and plenty of other backbench voices worry that Labour has lost interest in the under-dogs, those without rights and power. In government, will it be a radical reforming party? Will it be clearly on the side of the losers as well as the wealth-creators? Hattersley sets his benchmark for the party's liberal values: "The two great liberal tests are the party's attitudes to ethnic minorities and immigration law, and penal reform. I understand why electoral pressures make the party cautious on both but it is absolutely essential they take a strong stand."

These tests will fall upon the Home Secretary, so it is Jack Straw who draws the fire and fury from Labour's old liberals, as he beats the law and order drum to please the Essex crowds. He, though, is as quick with the disappearing coin as any of them. Hardly had I opened my mouth to ask to see the party's liberal credentials than he hastened to ladle out praise for Roy Jenkins as the greatest reforming Home Secretary of all time - on private sexual behaviour, on race and capital punishment.

Now what does this admiration of Jenkins signify? It is easy now to praise with these long-dead reforms, but where are his own brave and unpopular policies, pursued fearlessly for their justice alone? What might equivalent bravery be now? Perhaps a willingness to open a debate, at least, on legalising cannabis? Perhaps a meaningful discourse on the future of the monarchy? On these things much of the country ruminates - but not Parliament, and certainly not new Labour.

"I am well aware of how I am perceived," Jack Straw says, with a rueful smile. A list follows: he voted to lower the homosexual age of consent to 16; he was brought up very well by a single mum, and sees no problem with one-parent families per se ("although I know that's not Tony's view").

He would repeal "most of" the Asylum Bill and make immigration law fairer. Would everyone born here be given back the right to citizenship? "We haven't finally decided." On penal reform, as the prison population has rocketed under Howard, can he say whether it will come down again under his policies? No, he can't say for sure.

His critics say he follows Michael Howard like a true shadow, no glimmer of daylight between them. He replies that if Michael Howard devotes himself single-mindedly to digging large elephant traps for Labour - the Asylum Bill is a prime example - he is not going to be stupid enough to oblige them by jumping in.

Times have changed since Jenkins' day. Looking back at both Labour and Tory old manifestos, crime barely featured although it tops voters' concerns. Many colleagues who are deeply liberal by instinct have had the sobering experience of confronting desperate Labour voters on estates plagued by marauding gangs of youths, unchecked by police or courts. What is "liberal" about letting communities of decent poor people suffer at their hands?

In the end, though, we are left looking into his eyes, listening to the spaces between his words and guessing what kind of Home Secretary he will be. In the end, despite the necessary law-and-order sabre-rattling, it is probable that he will make a respectably liberal fist of it. After Howard, he will blow like a cool wind of reason through the fetid air of the Home Office corridors. He may not mean what some of his words seek to suggest, but he is a Wilsonian figure, delicately balancing reasonable freedom with reasonable concern about crime.

Now does Tony Blair really mean what he says? Little of what he has said can be pinned on him. In one useful sound bite he is "the party of the family", but with the next breath he explains this means practical help for working mothers - so the magic coin "family values" is cleverly displayed in a public place.

The Hattersley tendency says Blair means what he says.

One says: "He is all of a piece and not pretending. He does quite like the idea of bad young men being marched about in camps. He has a passion about single parents and a genuine anxiety for the welfare of their disadvantaged children. Workfare appeals to him because it is for the real moral good of the unemployed. He would play the Good Samaritan, but would feel obliged to ask penetrating questions about whether the victim had contributed in some way to his plight."

There is little cynicism in Tony Blair; it comes from the heart and that is what scares old liberals. They would rather believe this was all a clever electoral trick: once in power he will cast off his cloak and with one bound we shall all be free. But that Victorian moralism is deep-dyed. It demands a balance between rights and responsibilities, between individualism and community, between family and sexual liberty, discipline and freedom. In this he talks not only to the electors, but to God.