My message to the left: have faith The faith to operate in a new world

Critics who say the party is selling out will only undermine a radical agenda, argues Tony Blair
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Two former prime ministers, one British, startled me recently by saying that opposition is harder than government. As an Israeli politician once said, in government you wake up and ask: "What shall I do today?". In opposition, you ask: "What shall I say?" Opposition policies, in the end, are talk not action. It means you are judged less on a real record than on a perception, more difficult to make concrete and so more easily distorted.

As the election approaches, all this becomes more apparent. The party has to ward off attacks from the right - who wish to make us extreme - and the left, who proclaim us, as does the Independent on Sunday, as too cautious. Critics on the left say we stand for nothing, yet according to the Conservatives our policies will destroy industry, free criminals, raise taxes, rip up the flag, surrender to Brussels.

These Tory slurs may be nonsense, but they will be on countless hoardings in the longest and costliest advertising campaign ever. You think they can't work? Remember 1992, and Labour's "Tax Bombshell" - pounds l,000 extra tax. A lie. Yet we had unemployed people saying they couldn't vote Labour because of tax. We had former supporters phoning our HQ to say they had read "our tax plans" in the Daily Mail. We had low-paid workers saying how could they vote Labour when their company video said that under the minimum wage, 2 million jobs would go.

When we go into the election, the charge Labour will have to defend most vigorously will not be that it is too cautious. The charge will be that the party would visit all manner of evil on Britain. And the Tories are already making clear they will go against me with an unprecedented brutality. First it was Bambi - too weak. Then it was authoritarianism. But now they have settled for their line of attack - he stands for nothing, and will say anything to get elected. In this way, they hope to destroy faith in our integrity, so that the real charge - same old Labour - can be made to stick.

The Bambi tag was always ridiculous, so is that of autocracy - the Labour Party is more open and democratic than ever before. The debate over Clause IV involved the entire membership. We are now embarked on a similar huge consultation exercise on our draft manifesto. What is true, however, is that I will not leave anything undone that may get in the way of a Labour victory and good government. Tough decisions - whether on spending, devolution, the labour market or the minimum wage - are decisions we would have to face in government so I prefer that the party and public face up to them now.

As for standing for nothing, it is a charge that carries little conviction when made by a party that cannot decide whether to praise or bury Thatcherism. My central belief that the individual thrives best within a strong community is what brought me into politics and what motivates me now.

Against their well-financed ruthlessness, enormous care must be taken in how they are fought and beaten. The task requires patience and understanding. Four elections have been lost. Our share of the vote in 1992 was less than in 1979. Even with all the Tories have done, and all that we have accomplished, fear will be a potent factor. If we lose, Britain gets another five years of a tired, discredited Tory regime. So winning is important.

What's more, there is a radical programme worth fighting for. The five examples of change we highlighted when launching our draft manifesto, "New Life for Britain", may be dismissed in some quarters as tokens, but they would produce genuine benefit to ordinary people: reduce class sizes, abolish the internal market in the NHS to cut waiting times, 250,000 young people off the dole, fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders, economic stability to protect family incomes.

Nor should anyone imagine that these five early pledges are the limits of what we offer. In each area of policy, there is a clear distinction between Tory and Labour, but for once on territory that is popular and of our choosing. In place of laissez-faire economics, a drive by business and government to regenerate the economic base of Britain, co-operating in skills, technology, infrastructure and small businesses. In the workplace, partnership not confrontation. In education, commitment to the comprehensive system, not a return to dividing children into successes or failures at 11, but modernising all- in schooling to take account of different abilities. In the NHS, retaining devolution of power to hospitals and doctors, but basing the system on co-operation not market forces. In crime, tackling the causes of crime, not just the defects of the criminal justice system. Decentralising the political system. A fresh start to relations in Europe.

We now have more detailed policy than any opposition party has ever had. They are policies given coherence by an intellectual framework, which has the building of a modern form of social solidarity at its heart. There is an economic agenda modernising British industrial and commercial capacity. A social agenda - renewing social cohesion, tackling poverty and long- term unemployment, based on opportunities and responsibilities going together, strong communities, helping family life and mutual respect and tolerance. A political agenda - a new constitutional settlement. An international agenda which reflects our guiding principle that we achieve more together than we can alone.

Read "New Labour New Life for Britain" and it is all there. If we were to introduce this in government, it would mark out a radical post-Thatcherite agenda. Of course, if people on the left continually describe it as a monstrous sell-out, it will undermine enthusiasm for change. This is the usual unholy alliance between Tory propaganda and parts of the left that I have witnessed all my political life.

Our programme represents a challenge to those who believe that radical politics is defined in terms of tax. In the Eighties the left allowed itself to be manoeuvred into precisely the position the right wanted. Radicalism was defined as more tax. Whatever the levels of tax, spending and borrowing, we always wanted more. Our tunnel vision on this issue made us wholly incapacitated in making two points that are far more fundamental than lp up or down.

First, it has allowed the Tories to portray themselves as hard but competent. In fact, they have been totally incompetent managers of the economy - they have spent more, squandered North Sea oil and asset sales worth pounds 200bn, pushed borrowing through the floor and taxes through the roof. They have done it because they have ignored the problems of the real economy and been indifferent to the costs of social breakdown. But as long as we were saying tax, spend and borrow more, such an argument was lost.

Second, I believe in greater equality. If the next Labour government has not raised the living standards of the poorest by the end of its time in office, it will have failed. But it is not a few pounds more benefit the poor need, but a job, skill or opportunity. The welfare state is not working in its present form. Our mission is to modernise it, not just defend the status quo.

Have faith. That is my message to critics on the left. The battle for power is not yet won. It can be. Then the real tough battles begin. But remember, it is a new world out there. Old ways won't do. They haven't for four elections. But we can do it now. With courage. With hope. With faith.

Comments