This week the New Statesman tried to assess the actions of the first 42 days against the categories of left, right and radical centre, arguing that Blairism is defined by the attempt to find a "Third Way" between left and right - a way that, for shorthand, believes in social justice within an open, competitive market economy. This is an intriguing idea, and the NS is surely right to presume that Blairism will in the end be defined by what the Government does, not by what Tony Blair ever says. But the NS, in analysing the actions of the Government thus far, understandably emerged somewhat puzzled.
Left-wingers have concluded that the new government is not such a sell- out as they had feared. It has restored trade union rights at GCHQ, abolished the "primary purpose" rule for immigration, and banned landmines. Meanwhile, the starched fronts of the City welcomed Chancellor Gordon Brown's Mansion House speech as one that "could have been delivered by a Conservative", and a string of business leaders have been put in charge of key policy areas.
If this amounts to the Third Way, of which Mr Blair spoke at the socialist gathering in Malmo recently, then what are its organising principles? It is easy to be cynical, so let us for the sake of argument be cynical. The new government seems to be picking and choosing from the policies of left, right and centre according to how popular they are. If the focus groups want them to bash the "fat cats" of Camelot and the water companies, Chris Smith and John Prescott will do the left-wing thing. If the voter research demands tight control of spending or toughness on crime, then Gordon Brown and Jack Straw will do that.
When you put it like that, it is easy to see how untrue that portrait is. This government may prove to be a lot of things, but it is not yet cynical. (Mr Straw's repeal of the most arbitrary and unfair aspects of immigration law is, for example, hardly a vote-winner.) The new government is best defined by a kind of principled populism. And populism has much to commend it, as well as some obvious dangers.
Perhaps Tony Blair's greatest achievement so far has been to teach the Labour Party to speak English. The most dramatic change in the past six weeks has been in the quality of the dialogue between government and the people. Labour fought the election with billboards which made a series of direct statements. Young offenders will be punished. NHS waiting lists will be shorter. Class sizes will be smaller. Income tax rates will not rise. More jobs for young people. These were credible promises which will, in all likelihood, be delivered. Compare the simplicity of those pledges, too artless to be called slogans, with the theological debate raging in the Conservative Party about the degree of absoluteness of a commitment not to join the euro. Unlike the Tories, Labour is engaged in a democratic conversation with the electorate in a language everyone can understand.
Yesterday, Mr Blair added to the after-sales service with a question- and-answer session in Worcester, home of the female floating voter targeted so unsuccessfully by the Tories. It is an impressive commitment, to speak directly to the people once a month, and the protests of Westminster traditionalists only make the Prime Minister's point. Of course, he has bypassed and belittled his accountability to the House of Commons. We are profoundly unshocked. Mr Blair still answers questions once a week in Parliament, but no prime minister has ever answered questions from the voters themselves in a regular forum like yesterday's. Yes, we know and Mr Blair knows, and Mr Blair's advisers know that this is a forum that suits him, that he performs at his best in such circumstances. Yesterday he did not disappoint: he came across as persuasive, sincere and human. And, yes, there are limits to the number of questioners and questions and to the fullness of his replies. But that does not detract from the significance of such direct democratic communication.
Mr Blair has learnt well the lessons of recent American politics. One of the books that was influential in recreating the Democratic Party in the US was Speaking American, by David Kusnet. Learning the lessons of the failed Democratic presidential campaigns of the Eighties, it urged a "new populism" which identified the party with the common-sense values of mainstream America, instead of only addressing the downtrodden. This meant using simple language. It worked for Bill Clinton, and it worked for Mr Blair, but Mr Blair also learnt from Mr Clinton's mistakes in office, and has not tried to push through unpopular left-wing policies in his honeymoon period.
Hence the insistence that "we won as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour". But populism, while a refreshing draught of democracy in our tired political system, is value-free, and it is by its values that Blairism will be remembered. Those are sketchy still: a little liberal but only so far as it goes; moralistic, definitely; technocratic, as far as it is possible to discern. Meanwhile, renewing the democratic conversation between government and governed is not a bad start for a new "ism".Reuse content