Six fashionable cliches about new Labour

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The Independent Online
Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas mocked the thought-free cliches of the high bourgeoisie in 19th century provincial France. A latterday British Flaubert could have an equally high old time with the metropolitan Things They Say about the Blair Labour Party. Before we examine those which have crept into fashionable discourse since the election, let's first remind ourselves about some of those that were common before it.

It'll be the same old Labour Party once they get in. This was primarily a Tory mantra, though it was also secretly muttered by some on the left who thought of Blair merely as a necessary vehicle for getting Labour re-elected. In fact, all the signs are that Blair's exhortation to the Cabinet that "we were elected as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour" has proved to be true. A schools policy which sets up special education zones that bypass local authorities, that charges university tuition fees and builds bridges with the private sector is just one good example.

Blair, Brown and Cook are good but the rest of them aren't up to it. Hardly. There are certainly weak links; Gavin Strang and David Clark have not exactly overperformed. There will be a reshuffle before the summer of 1998, not least because there are some bright, ambitious ministers in the second rank. But in drive, attention to detail and enthusiasm for their jobs, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Mo Mowlam have consistently starred in a surprisingly competent line-up.

Tony Blair's a nice guy but is too young/ Bambi-like to be Prime Minister. This was a - largely submerged - theme among some some of those Labour modernisers after John Smith's death who agonised that Brown would make a better, stronger Prime Minister, even if not a more electable Labour leader. It is now clearly obsolete, but elements of it have resurfaced in a different, post-election form:

Blair is the company chairman/president/front man with a chief executive/ideas man behind him. Except in the world wonderfully conjured by Rory Bremner, where the Svengali-like man behind the scenes is Peter Mandelson, he is usually assumed to be Gordon Brown. The idea is that the Iron Laddie produces all the policies - popular and not so popular - while Blair gladhands round the world fostering the feelgood factor being - Bremner again - Prime Minister of People's Hearts. This is not the experience of ministers I have talked to over the past few weeks. Blair has spent inordinate hours, for example, going over the small print of schools' policy with Blunkett and today's health White Paper with Frank Dobson. Nor has he exactly let go of the detail of Northern Ireland, bringing talks to a stage at which he can see Gerry Adams without the world falling in. Detail is not a problem for his lawyer's mind. Yes, Brown is a hugely fertile source of ideas; but nothing, including the historic Commons EMU statement - as much Brown's as Blair's - is announced by the Chancellor without first being discussed, at length, with Blair. The suspicion partly arises because Blair's rather good at using charm where Margaret Thatcher used fear. But that doesn't mean he isn't as good at enforcing his will. There's no one else, not Mandelson, not Brown, not Sir Robin Butler, to ensure that a still rather disparate Cabinet works together. And who does the detailed, fellow heads of government squaring, preparatory work for European summits if not him? Even the Bernie Ecclestone affair may have given the impression that he is more gullible than he is. It now looks as if he was uneasy about the tobacco sponsorship ban long before he met Ecclestone. You may think he was wrong. But the experience is likely to make him trust his own instincts more rather than less.

The Blair government. All presentation and no substance. This may be almost precisely the opposite of the truth. So far most of the real problems have stemmed from presentation - either too much of it or the wrong kind - rather than the formulation of policy. It's sensible to dramatise the importance of the Social Exclusion Unit by travelling to a school in Stockwell, as Blair did yesterday, rather than by making a dry statement in the Commons. But enough, please, of the now empty phrase "People's Europe". The EMU crisis was more a problem of un-coordinated presentation than of serious policy disagreement between Downing Street and the Treasury. So too, perhaps, with some of the hostile reaction to last week's savings announcement. Incidentally Peps and Tessas had a warm quotable feel as names; The ISAs that have replaced them sound like nothing on earth. And, while we're about it, the Social Exclusion Unit is also a pretty forbidding name. Why not, at the very least, the Social Inclusion Unit? But you can't tot up the policies from an independent Bank of England to the NHS, last summer's budget, Northern Ireland and Scottish devolution and then complain of lack of substance.

They're just like the Tories. The ferocity of Gordon's Brown's spending limits - for the first two years - is usually cited as the prime example. But would the Tories have embarked on constitutional reform? Would they be introducing a minimum wage? Did they even want an agreement at Amsterdam? There is another, even more, fundamental difference: without Kenneth Clarke as leader, the Tories remain ideologically in the state-shrinking business. Blair shows every sign of being about a reallocation of public expenditure, to education, health, and his cherished cause of social inclusion, rather than cutting it overall. Blair does, through welfare reform, want to end what he believes to be the corrosive effects of the dependency culture. There are grounds for hoping that this hugely ambitious project will bite, in time, as deeply into some of the benefits of the most prosperous as it will as a result of tomorrow's Commons vote, on new, non-working lone parents. The short-term effects of the cuts may be harsh. But there is plenty to do with the money. Be wary of received wisdom. This is a man with a plan.

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