Love thy neighbour and keep the noise down

The new social moralists of the Labour Party are careful to distinguish private conduct from public behaviour
Is new Labour succumbing to an old authoritarian streak? Jack Straw's proposal for curfews to keep children off the street at night have been attacked by the Tories as socialist Big Brother politics and by the Liberal Democrats as ''plain dangerous''. Nor, it has to be said, have they been enthusiastically received by children.

They follow a fast-growing list of proposals from Mr Straw and other Labourites that have aroused the ire and worry of civil libertarians. There was the suggested clampdown on noisy neighbours, the decision no longer to oppose the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the proposal that parents of ''irresponsible'' children should be given compulsory education in parenting and, of course, the Straw speech against "aggressive begging ... and the squeegee merchants."

At the same time there has been something close to a counter-revolution in Labour's attitude to schooling, with David Blunkett leading the attack on the progressive teaching methods championed in the Sixties but still dominant in many British schools. Tough on bad speling; tough on the causes of bad speling.

The great change in Labour was vividly brought home by Michael Cockerell's recent television biography of Roy Jenkins, who defended his record as Labour's reforming Home Secretary when he changed laws on homosexuality, abortion, divorce and censorship.

Mr Jenkins said: ''I was trying to make Britain a more liberal and open society because I thought we lived in a repressive climate ... If you want to stop people doing something which they enjoy doing, which they believe is within their liberty of action, then you've got to have an overwhelming social case ... if you're going to stop them, you shouldn't do it out of prejudice or out of habit, but only because you can show that a definite social evil results.''

After 17 years of government by Tories who blamed Mr Jenkins for the permissive society, not one of his great reforms has been reversed. Yet it is almost impossible to imagine a leading politician today expressing himself with such breezily self-confident libertarianism.

Certainly, it has become inconceivable that a Labour government of the late Nineties would embark on liberalising measures of the scale of Mr Wilson's 1964-70 governments. What, anyway, would that mean? Legalising soft drugs, at the very least. Outlawing discrimination against homosexuals in the armed services? Offering the same financial and legal protection for gay marriages as for ordinary ones? Those might be among the measures a latter-day Roy Jenkins figure would tackle. But there isn't one, and Sixties' liberation politics are deeply unfashionable.

Labour today is part of a new mood of mild conservatism in social policy that is sweeping the West. There are risks in it; by ditching libertarianism, new Labour is surrendering a certain excitement and exuberance. It is giving up on the chance to be hip.

One might object that no party led by Tony Blair (despite his youthful rock-star ambitions) or Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Harriet Harman and so on, could ever be entirely hip. But that is too personal a response. It is on the level of the attacks Straw has taken, such as the story that, aged 11, he told off the local ice-cream man for sounding his chimes after 7pm.

There is a personal aspect to new Labourism, but it is more interesting. Straw comes from a single-parent family and was brought up on an Essex housing estate. His instincts are nearer those of working-class families having a hard time from local youth and riotous neighbours than they are to the instincts of the liberal middle classes.

When I spoke to Tony Blair about this yesterday, he argued vociferously that to say there was a choice between social liberalism on the one hand, and social conservatism on the other was as false as the suggestion in economics that you had to be in favour either of laissez-faire or of old- style state control. His generation had grown up with a more permissive culture, and saw tolerance as a very important virtue; but it also wanted social rules.

Noting that for many elderly Britons, ''life has been made absolute hell'' by the behaviour of young people, he argued that Labour's position was social democratic: ''at the heart of it is a deal, a settlement between the individual and society. There has to be a space with clear rules. Why? Because otherwise, the powerful win - which is what is happening on many estates.''

About that he is surely right. I have noticed that women and older people - particularly poorer older people - are far more enthusiastic about Straw- type policies than the younger and richer men who tend to dominate politics and journalism. It is easy for the powerful to be relaxed about petty street crime, neighbourhood noise and education standards in state schools - for these are all things the powerful can buy distance from.

It is possible to envisage a ''new Labour'' morality that is, for instance, in favour of lowering the age of consent for homosexuals (Blair's view) and also in favour of being tougher on young criminals (ditto). Similarly, Straw's views about aggressive beggars may be too strong for some tastes - mine included - but they go alongside a fervent and aggressive anti- racism that is also the spawn of the Sixties.

There are philosophical and practical difficulties about this new social morality. Any politician who lacks Jenkins's intellectual clarity about the limits of state power and the liberty of the individual can too easily be nudged by the latest scare, the latest headline, into taking liberties from the latest unpopular group (boys, blacks or beggars). That, rather than deliberate malignity, has been the story of the Tory years.

But there is something like a new social morality emerging, which is being articulated by the Blairites. It has no name. But it separates private sexual and recreational conduct, about which it is very tolerant, from public-space behaviour, about which it is increasingly stern. It has its dangers - a morality that concentrates on public behaviour is bound to be tougher on those who spend time on the streets and, therefore, who are poorer or unemployed. But it is not social conservatism, which is less liberal about sex and race. And it is not shameless populism either.

It is probably, in truth, the moral centre-ground shared by most British voters who are middle-aged or younger. Blair and Straw are on to something and they know it. But they also owe it to the rest of us to articulate this new something, and acknowledge its dangers openly and expound its benefits more convincingly. For here, not in economics or diplomacy, is a political revolution in the making.