Leading Article: Old ghosts Blair must lay to rest

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is trying hard to make voters feel safe. Last night in a speech in Derby he addressed the deep insecurities that people across all classes feel about losing their jobs, poverty in old age and crime. The balm he offered was his "stakeholder economy", which he summed up as "a strong cohesive society in which the individual can thrive".

It was a short, vague speech that offered little detail. Mr Blair's alleged big idea has a warm, reassuring feel; this notion that everyone should be included and given opportunities. The trouble is that it also provokes insecurities of an entirely different kind. These worries are that this talk of stakeholding merely disguises old-fashioned Labour policies and that it will be used by the trade unions to get back some of the powers they lost in the 1980s.

Mr Blair needs to dispel those doubts if the message of "stakeholding" - however vague and convoluted - is to get through to the average, middle- income voters he wants to woo. It was their swing to Margaret Thatcher that put the Tories into power, and it is their disillusionment with the Conservatives today that could see Mr Blair into Downing Street.

Many of these voters, particularly in the South, were won over by Thatcherism's message of competition and the survival of the fittest, the offer of choice and the call to rely more on themselves and less on the state. In the Nineties that dream has turned sour. Managers, bank workers, professionals - they have all felt the chill of redundancies. House prices plunged. The middle classes have become fearful.

So today everyone - even the Labour Party - may accept that the rigours of global competition are inescapable, even desirable. We cannot turn the clock back via nationalisation or protectionism. But this creed of the Eighties is no longer enough. People want to know that there is a way to recover if they become casualties of change. They want to be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, learn a new skill.

Mr Blair is offering some answers. For example, yesterday he spoke of "individual learning accounts", a sum which people could save with the state's help but then choose themselves how to spend on their own training. Individual ownership - be it of training or pensions - rather than state paternalism, seems to be the healthy direction of Mr Blair's thinking.

But he has not fully realised how his party still scares those he wants to reassure. Those middle-class voters he cultivates are easily frightened that Labour favours old-style Seventies corporatism and a resurgence of union power.

Last night Mr Blair was keen to allay those fears. He declared that the stakeholder economy "is not about giving power to corporations or unions or interest groups. It is about giving power to you, the individual."

He may be sincere in his protestations. But his supporters are less convincing. This week, Michael Meacher, Labour's employment spokesman, talked about "social and economic partnerships", which sounded suspiciously like the old-style corporatism that smothered enterprise. John Monks, the TUC leader, thinks stakeholding will underpin union collective bargaining. Mr Blair heads a party in which many have yet to be converted to Blairism. Only when voters are convinced that new Labour has completely buried its past will Mr Blair be able adequately to address middle-class insecurity. And that is the key to the general election.

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