A big idea to suit the nation's grumpy mood

The Labour leader's vision of a 'stakeholder society' goes a long way towards rediscovering a credible project for the centre-left
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is finding his true voice. Catapulted unexpectedly into the Labour leadership and learning on the job, he has spent many months publicly refining his message, sharpening his ideas, searching for words that will really hit home. Now, far from home, in Japan and Singapore, he has started to come up with the language for his election campaign.

Politics is about philosophy and the big picture, as well as detailed policy and crisis management. If voters have no sense of where a government is headed, or how it thinks about the world, then their interest in its legislation will be pretty limited. In Labour's case, it has had a huge historical weight to dislodge before Britain takes it fully seriously.

Since Labour was last in power the state has been largely discredited as a means of social advance. It has been edged aside by the market and by globalisation. It has had its nose rubbed in its own failures to run industries efficiently or to raise up a welfarist New Jerusalem without modernist slums.

Faced with this the centre-left, which had been the state's central nervous system in the post-war world, was defeated not only at the ballot box but in the battle of ideas, too. Socialism became terminally unfashionable, except among a thinning fringe of optimistic revolutionaries and academic has-beens.

So to declare that Blair is starting to turn the intellectual tide is a very big claim indeed. It would mean not only that he had found a credible new role for the state, but that he was able to distinguish new Labour's programme from the Tories in ways that made sense, without denying the facts of the new economic order. Yet this is what seems to be happening.

His first technique is to change the terms of intellectual trade. In his speech to Japanese business leaders last Friday, he accepted that in the global market, deregulation and financial orthodoxy were essential: ''Some of the changes made by the Conservatives in the 1980s were inevitable and are here to stay.''

But he immediately went on to argue that they were only the beginning, ''the first era of response to globalisation ... The next era will be the creative age, where the economics of the 21st century will be dominated by those countries that save, invest, innovate and ... develop the potential of the one resource that will be exclusively theirs: their people.'' And in this second era, he argues, Labour is naturally placed as the best party to take up the baton of economic advance.

Thus, in a few sentences, the historic failure of state socialism is admitted and swiftly relegated as wholly irrelevant to contemporary politics. The Thatcher revolution is patted on the head and dismissed. Labour's mistakes are acknowledged and airily discarded as old stuff, fit for student debating clubs and history books, rather than live general election ammunition.

This is cheeky but shrewd. Point-scoring politicians endlessly look back over one another's records. But to the voters, being thought right matters much more than being thought original or consistent: it did not damage Churchill, Eden or Macmillan in the Fifties that they were running on tracks laid down by Attlee's exhausted administration. Similarly, if Labour has converted to the current economic consensus, middle Britain is likely to be reassured rather than contemptuous.

So now Blair proposes Labour and the ''stakeholder economy'' as the next step for British modernisation, an advance on the Tory past, rather than a break with it. But where does that leave the state, whose past failures destroyed the previous model of socialism and which most Conservatives regard more as problem than solution?

Well, to be brief, Blair attempts to reinvent it. Rather than owner of industries and wealth-churner, the state becomes the long-term shareholder, the wise investor, the guardian of the future. Its job is to add the wider and longer-term thinking that market economics by itself tends to forget: to remember the market outcasts and drag them back into the economy; to persuade us to save when we would rather spend; to invest national wealth in dull training and education rather than flippant new cars and Mediterranean holidays.

For this, the state keeps its power of compulsion. For some, life in Blair's stakeholder economy would be stringent. Unemployed young people would be obliged to take whatever jobs or training were offered, or face a cut of 40 per cent in their benefits. Parents would be obliged to help their children with homework through home-school contracts. (Though quite what sanction they would face is unclear. Parental detention? Lines?).

Schools would be obliged to change their culture to create more scope for academic excellence. Companies would be forced to abide by minimum wage and social contract legislation. Employees might be obliged to save more of their income for pensions. Noisy neighbours, threatening beggars, young tearaways ... all would find the state more active than ever. It would be a social contract with two sides.

There are real objections to all this on which the Tories might profitably dwell if they forgot their current hogwash about Blair's Asian speeches being mere soundbite politics - or, in John Major's curiously oxymoronic phrase ''substantially ... an empty box''.

First, it relies on faith in politicians and bureaucrats. Why, one might ask, should the state be wise in directing human capital for the next century when it has been so foolish about directing industrial capital during the past century? Aren't media companies and sophisticated 14-year- olds likely to make better judgements about the next trends and skills needed than the directors of Labour's University for Industry?

Second, there is a governessy, disciplinarian tone that a stroppy country like ours might eventually find hard to swallow. All these new obligations, for instance - the only one missing is a new contract between GPs and patients in which New Britons promise to upgrade and invest in their cardiovascular systems prior to an annual health audit.

These are the most obvious drawbacks to Blair's ''stakeholder society'' which, in other respects, goes a long way towards rediscovering a credible project for the centre-left. Are they serious enough to cancel out the prize of greater security, fairness and long-term economic success that he offers as the reward for giving the state another chance?

My guess is that if the stakeholder message gets across, it will be popular. It has the right feel for this grumpy, unhappy and insecure recovery. In retrospect, people feel that there was something wrong about the boom- bust economic rollercoaster of the Eighties and early Nineties. The house price boom followed by the crash is too neat and universal a morality story for the British to forget before the next election. And there is a moral hardness about Blair's central proposal, that we get more back from society only by putting more in, which seems like common sense of a kind old Labourism lacked.

This may be the year of the general election that changes Britain more than any since 1979. What Blair has made certain of is that it will not be a contest merely between tired politicians and implausible manifestos. It will now be a genuine battle of ideas as well.