Blair's fear of the fear factor

The Tories plan to frighten the nation into spurning constitutional reform. But, argues Anthony Barnett, backing down in the face of hostile fire could prove fatal for Labour
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The Independent Online
John Major is going to open the debate in the House of Commons over Scotland and the constitution today. He will raise the flag of the Union, which he believes won him the last election. And he ought to know. He intends it will win him this one too and dispatch Blair to the purgatory of opposition. The hard game commences. As it does Labour must project confidence in the principles of its commitment to reform. Otherwise Major could be proved right. The constitution is not its winning issue, but it can be a losing one.

Blair knows how to be an eloquent advocate of reform. His speech to the Labour Party conference as shadow Home Secretary before John Smith died and his Cardiff speech in his campaign to win the party leadership were not drafts produced by speech-writers for a busy leader more interested in other matters. The article that appeared over his name across three full pages of The Economist last autumn, passages of which are clearly in his voice, ranks as one of the best arguments of need for the constitutional reform of Britain. Major's inability to reply was a notable failure. In the battle of ideas a clear victory has gone to the swelling ranks of radicalism.

Constitutional reform is not, however, a popular issue in England. Even though many reforms receive very high degrees of support (in the case of freedom of information an astronomic 80 per cent), they are not voters' prime concern. Only in Scotland, with its deeper constitutional culture, does the electorate sense a connection between reform and the delivery of better social and economic growth. Across the rest of Britain, reform can only become genuinely popular when it happens.

Labour wants to fight the election on other issues. The Government does not. And the Tories have spotted a weakness: Blair and his advisers have measured the fear of change that resides in the bosoms of swing voters. Of course, such voters desire some change, or they would not be swinging. To make sure they do not swing back Blair feels obliged to reassure them they need not fear a change of government.

Some say that in its fear of the fear factor, New Labour risks destroying the hope factor of millions who positively want change. This could demobilise existing support. The Tories see a different, intrinsic vulnerability. By targeting Labour's fear of fear, they could expose it as a coward's strategy that no talk of strong leadership will disguise. If they succeed, Labour will emerge as genuinely dangerous or pusillanimous or both. Pendulum voters will then return.

The Tories will claim that Labour naivete will destroy all we love best. That New Labour threatens the unity and coherence of our country with its half-baked plans. That concessions to Scots with a parliament and to minorities with a bill of rights will arouse but not satisfy the beneficiaries. That such reforms will provide light without warmth and lead to demands for the fire next time. Once put to the torch, our institutions will burn out of control.

And what will Labour reply? Cool it, is the advice Blair will receive. Arouse no expectations; neither alarm nor palpitate hearts in the marginals. Let the issue wither and focus on education, health, jobs and crime. Just tell the Conservatives that they are being silly.

In one sense such advice is right. Tragically, perhaps, voters still feel that issues of power, sovereignty and how the country is run, belong to "them", especially them with wigs and funny voices. But the Tories may well be right as well. They are more than used to rehearsing the supposed irrelevance of constitutional issues. They are Conservatives. They want the nature of the system kept to the margins of democratic politics. The long, historic silence was their first line of defence against mass suffrage. How is it, then, that those who are best as proclaiming the constitution's irrelevance now see it as an election-winning issue?

This is how they calculate it. The swing voter does not see all that much difference between the parties, except that Labour is new. We deserve a change, and while Blair is untried he can be trusted. As the constitution is the one issue where Blair has offered something different, it must be spun to show that Blair can't be trusted. If the Tories hammer at the issue, Labour could break and run. Then the people will be aroused.

Through its fear of the fear factor Labour could be panicked - this is the Tory strategy - into proclaiming that its reforms are not radical. That they mean only a slight degree of change. That the sacred spirit of our historic settlement will be safe in its hands. That the intention is only improvement and in no way replacement, with horrid, continental style written documents. Then it will be ambushed with the quotes from Cardiff, from Smith, from Brown, advocating the need for a "new settlement". Confusion will be sown in Labour ranks.

Such a Tory ambush could be effective because the constitution does touch the unity and destiny of the country, our nature as a society, our character as a nation. Knowing this, they will exploit it. If Labour denies that it is seeking to reform the system as a whole - if it projects reform as technical, complicated and piecemeal - then the Tories will, in their defence against any tampering, speak out for the spirit of the whole.

Fought out in these terms, the Conservatives would have two decisive advantages: the truth and a clear message. The British constitution is not a technicality. Change a part and you do indeed put the whole at risk, for it is a seamless web spun by the absolute sovereignty of parliament. Therefore Labour needs to justify the reforms it wants and say how it will lead the country in a fast- changing world.

But Labour does not have a theory of change. This is surprising as, more than any previous Labour leader (even if this is not saying much), Blair is interested in change. He is attracted to it and sees the need for it in Britain.

But what kind or change does he want? Fear of the fear factor, it seems, has silenced any answer. It is unanswerably the case that his approach is sweeping and ambitious, because he has so described it himself. But what laws of motion is he seeking to unleash? With Thatcher we knew the answer. Change for her came from the market. Free the market, and wealth could be produced and trickle down.

Blair is not a free-marketeer. He and Gordon Brown believe that the state is needed to help enable sustainable growth. A Fabian then? Blair has rejected "incrementalism", and it was old Labour that held that the man in Whitehall knew best. Liberalism? Blair rarely uses the word liberty. His political attitudes are communitarian rather than individualist. Obviously he is not a leftist who believes in a take-over from below. He is not - certainly not yet - a conservative parliamentarian who regards out institutions as embodying the wisdom of the ages. He sees the need for new answers and the redundancy of the old methods of arriving at them.

How, then, will he arrive at his? As the Tory assault on Labour's constitutional package gathers intensity, he had best respond. It could prove a disaster if Labour were to "deny" that a bill of rights, a Scottish parliament, abolition of hereditary peers, a freedom of information act, a referendum on the voting system, together add up to significant change. They would look evasive if not lying, because they would be evasive and lying. A contemporary democratic agenda does mean a new settlement. Is this what Labour wants? Deny it, and they are caught. Accept it and they will have to explain themselves.

There are only two ways of gaining a new settlement. Either all at once, in a single constitutional revolution, or step by step. Labour was right to reject Liberal-Democrat demands for a "Big Bang" on the constitution. Its alternative is a process of deliberate change.

Two kinds of change are on offer. One from the Conservatives, only they will not say so, and the other from Labour provided it dares to say so. The first, the traditional Tory one, is adaptation in order to remain the same. The second, the New Labour one, is alteration in order to become different. The motivation for the first is that we are already the best and simply need to keep our superiority intact. The motivation of the second is that we have fallen behind and need to change the relationships between government and society.

In Beyond Left and Right, the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls this second kind of approach "realistic utopianism". Adapting Karl Popper, I prefer "transformative engineering". Whatever the name for it, the broad meaning is clear. As a species we are becoming responsible for our planet while class divisions harden on a world scale. A global response is essential to overcome the dangers and gain the benefits of our new capacities. In these circumstances, both decentralisation and regulation are essential for the achievement of common objectives that retain the competitive creativity of an open society. It follows that we need to establish ambitious goals while taking simple, tangible steps to achieve them. Let's call it purposive evolution to contrast it with conservative preservation.

When Blair's advisers tell him to fear the fear factor they say people lack trust. However, people trust themselves much more than they trust any politician. There is a word for this: democracy. If Labour's constitutional reforms mean anything, they mean more and better democracy. It should not be afraid of saying so; it needs to give purpose to its method.

A firm rebuttal of John Major's constitutional assault is within Labour's means. Britain needs reform with consent that draws on the traditions of liberty and democracy. Consent means decentralisation and accepting difference (eg in Scotland). Power is to be shared, not monopolised. Uniformity and secrecy are British diseases, not successes. A freedom of information act will help to prove this, as it begins to cure it. The process needs time and must place confidence in the people. If Labour is too afraid to say this then, indeed, it should never have embraced reform in the first place.

The writer is director of the Birkbeck College Sovereignty Seminar.

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