Why we need a new social morality for the Nineties

Tony Blair responds to our series on the politics and values of new Labour
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The Independent Online
The Independent's series of articles upon new Labour this week were often well argued and well written. But I still think there is a basic failure to grasp the changing nature of politics today. We are all victims of our own history: the country, the Labour Party, and the media in trying to interpret both.

I grew up well after the end of the Second World War. By the time, I was out of short trousers, it was obvious to all but the truly perverse that the experiment of Eastern Europe was a political and economic disaster.

In addition, at the end of the Seventies, despite great achievements, the Labour Party as a governing party was in crisis. The extent of government had grown but so had disillusion with it. Meanwhile, my country, which had won two wars and saved the world from Nazism, was trying to come to terms with its imperial past. A hundred years before, we were the greatest power on the globe. Our economy was supreme. All had changed.

What brought me into politics was a belief in justice, and not just individually but socially. The same would have been so in relation to any Labour leader from Keir Hardie onwards. In the excellent biography of Campbell-Bannerman by Wilson, there is a paragraph where Campbell-Bannerman set out what radical politics meant to him. Basically, he said it was about "fairness". He was a marvellously understated politician and you can imagine the slight sense of disappointment in his audience. That's it? Fairness?

In part, actually, yes. I see huge inequalities in wealth and opportunity and believe they should be corrected. I see people held back, unable to fulfil their true potential, and I want to remove barriers. I see here and abroad poverty, ignorance and want and think it is our duty to seek to improve the condition of the people. I believe this is the best route to prosperity.

And there is an additional dimension. I believe the individual will do best in a decent and strong community. We are not individuals set in isolation but members of a community. And we believe freedom, in the broad and not just the legal sense, is best achieved when economic and social conditions help to promote it. Liberty, equality and fraternity (or solidarity). These are all values instantly recognisable to any radical throughout the centuries. They differ from Conservative values, in which preservation of the status quo to promote stability is paramount.

Now, here for my generation, has been the rub.

What was obvious to us was that by the end of the Seventies and Eighties many of the policy perceptions associated with our politics were no longer consonant with the values. There was too great an emphasis on state control and a failure to recognise the switch from producer to consumer, from beneficiary to taxpayer, amongst "ordinary people". The very dynamism that radical politics was supposed to provide had stalled. Socialism and even social democracy had ceased to be defined by values and had become defined by a set of rigid policy perspectives that were plainly, hopelessly out of date.

That in a nutshell explains the provenance of new Labour. Why are we not Conservatives? Because we don't believe in their narrow individualism, their placing of the interest of a few at the top before the many, or their increasing and alarming isolationist attitude to the rest of the world.

Therefore, we are neither old left nor new right. We believe in a new centre and centre-left politics that seeks to take these radical values and apply them to the world today. To achieve this, we have had to make enormous changes in the Labour Party and those changes will continue. We rewrote a statement of basic values and ideology that returns the party to its roots. We have altered our structures and organisation to remove the damaging domination of small groups of activists that almost wrecked the party. The activists are now far more in touch with the broader party, and the broader party, thanks to an expanding membership, in touch with the people. We have radically changed both policy and policy perspectives.

I make no apologies for these changes whatsoever. Until recently, the Labour Party was the least successful mainstream political party in the world. I most certainly do not believe in power at any price, but without it, politics is an entirely aimless exercise that holds no purpose for any serious person at all.

However, I will justify the policy changes fully on the basis of principle. The difficulty for many, especially the media, is that there appears now to be a greater policy overlap between left and right. Ergo, they argue, new Labour is just about shifting rightwards. This is to fail to understand the other great change that has taken place. The fundamental struggle between diametrically opposing ideologies - as Andrew Marr correctly wrote - was an aberration of 20th century politics. In Britain, partly because of the stridency of Thatcherism, partly because of the wrong turns of Labour in the Seventies and early Eighties - it carried on well past the time it had any relevance to public opinion. But it has now gone. There will be a far greater common pool of policy ideas. The difference will be more in the priority and objectives of government and probably in a residual but important debate about the role of government itself. There will be competing directions for the country, not competing revolutions. This is the truth and to fail to recognise it is to do a disservice to politics.

But the changes of direction can none the less be considerable. We have now set out four crucial pillars of the next Labour government. Extending economic opportunity to all in a world of massive economic and technological change; building a more just and cohesive one-nation society; decentralising political power, sharing it with the people, and Britain leading Europe and the world. In each area, again contrary to myth, we have put forward more detailed policy than any political party before us in opposition.

Let me pick up two of the new directions, the economic and the social. The old left (though more in perception than reality) favoured government control of parts of industry, and high levels of tax and spend. The new right is essentially laissez-faire, get government out of everything. The new Labour position is to seek a role for government, but that role today is different. It is to equip people and business for change to work in partnership with industry in the areas where the market fails. Here the emphasis is on skills, technology, infrastructure, science developing the regions and so on. We see the Tories have raised tax, are actually spending large sums of money but are not seeing good value for them. (Incidentally Hamish McRae's speculation on Labour's tax plans have no basis whatever in any policy document of the party).

Of course, improvements in any area have to be paid for. But not necessarily by government raising taxes. The essence of the modern role of government is that it enables and facilitates; it does not need in every case to be doing it or paying for it all, by itself. The University of Industry to raise skill levels is a classic example. Ditto, expanding higher education. That is why this idea that Labour has all these spending plans and thus must raise tax is just nonsense. We have no spending plans at all by government that are not costed and the costs stated.

Likewise, socially, the old left believed in an unreformed welfare state and in a socially libertarian attitude to what might loosely be called moral/political questions. The new right appears to want to dismantle welfare and its moral perspectives are atavistic, harking back to a world that has changed. I passionately believe that the welfare state can only be reformed by new Labour and that this reform will never carry consent unless it is based on a notion of a modern civic society in which rights and responsibilities go together. Hence our welfare to work plan.

I also believe that such a society cannot exist in a moral vacuum. I don't mean preaching to people about their private lives. But my generation - which grew up in a very liberal world - does want rules of conduct, boundaries that society tries to ensure, in the interest of justice. This is not social conservatism. The very fact it should be called that shows how badly the centre-left lost its way. It is trying to construct a new social morality for today. I believe in the family as the best building block of a good community. It is the best education for citizenship.

I think that people who beat up others or rob other citizens in their own home should be subject to punishment by society, otherwise fairness breaks down. I believe the underlying causes and proper rehabilitation should be addressed, too.

The idea that any of this makes me a Tory is fatuous. It would certainly have bemused Attlee or Bevin.

It is also often said that though I may believe this, I am virtually alone in Labour in believing it. This is intuitively odd since I was, after all, elected leader by a large majority in the largest exercise of party democracy this country has yet seen. Clause 4 was passed by 90 per cent of the party members voting.

Though, naturally, there are some who strongly disagree, the centre of gravity is entirely towards change. And though some of the rhetoric is different - I think this takes time - in fact, the bulk of the Labour Party agree with the central thrust. If anything, there is more concern about the style - because of the pace of change - than the nature of the change. There is a greater degree of coherence and basic agreement in the Shadow Cabinet than at any time for generations.

In government, many of these fears will subside. I know there will be very hard choices. But the essential will to make them is there. At the end of five years of Labour government, I would have wanted to make substantial progress on these fronts: an education system geared to excellence not for an elite but for all; radical reform of the welfare state; a proper modern partnership with industry in place and starting to deliver; the revitalising of our ancient and creaking democracy and Constitution; and Britain regaining influence in Europe and the wider world.

It is not, in fact, a modest agenda, it is a radical one. But it is modern and it is sensible. For a Britain struggling to gain an identity for the 21st century and laying to rest the ghosts of its past, it is precisely what we need.