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Power for a purpose

Tony Blair

 

First published in Renewal volume 3, number 4 (1995), pp. 11-16

 

The left is back in business - it must now map out a new course for Britain.

 

Labour's task at the end of the 20th century is to find answers to two fundamental questions. First, how we cope with, and how we shape, the economic changes of the global economy to provide prosperity and security for all our people. Second, how we develop a modern form of social rules — a set of parameters and boundaries recognised and accepted by society as a whole and enforced to the benefit of all. A strong civic society must be able to achieve these ends.

This is a distinct Labour message because we understand the scale of change and are willing to organise our society to meet it. We recognise the need for a new moral purpose in politics, and have the individual family and social values capable of sustaining it. The left recognises that you cannot build economic or social stability without social cohesion and that we must build a community where all citizens have a stake. To achieve this we must break down the barriers that hold people back. And finally, we must be outward looking as a nation not insular in addressing problems we face in common with other countries.

But the left-of-centre has to prove that it is up to the task. My leadership of the party is based on the judgement that to become a serious party of government again, the Labour Party needed not a series of adjustments but a quantum leap. We had to reconnect our ideology and organisation so that, whilst remaining true to our principles, we updated completely the manner in which they applied to the modern world. In the last year we have made a lot of progress and I believe we are now beginning to reconnect with the British people in a way that we have not done for many years.

As I will never tire of reminding people, there is still a very long way to go. And without power none of our dreams for Britain can be fulfilled. It is over twenty years since Labour won 40 per cent of the vote. It is more than 21 years since we won an election. By 1996 we will have been out of power for longer than any other mainstream party of the left in the Western world. Our 1992 vote was actually lower than our 1979 vote. And the swing required at the next election is larger than any required since 1945. So the task is immense.

 

Security in a changing world: a New Labour approach

Preparing the nation for economic change and re-establishing a sense of social order will require us to go beyond the old solutions of both the old left and new right which are quite simply not up to the task.

The old left solution of rigid economic planning and state control won't work. What is more, during the 1960s and 1970s the left developed almost in substitution for its economic prescriptions —which by then were failing — a type of social individualism that sometimes confused liberation from prejudice with a disregard for moral structures. It fought for racial and sexual equality, which was entirely right, but it appeared indifferent to the family and individual responsibility, which was wrong. Moreover, as the influence of some of the traditional supporters of the left in Labour and working-class organisation waned there was a real danger, occasionally realised, that single issue pressure groups moved into the vacuum. I believe that this was an abberation. Look back to the first heyday of the left in the 1930s and 1940s and you will find heavy emphasis on responsibility, self-improvement and the family.

When we talk about, strong families, responsibility and duty, being tough on crime, running an efficient economy, we are not aping the Tories but recapturing values that are rightfully ours. These things are what working-class Labour families up and down the country believe in. If these values are Tory values then no wonder we've lost the last four elections.

Similarly when I talk about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, it is a message cheered to the echoes in housing estates across the land, where working people, often trapped in poverty or unemployment, are tormented by criminal behaviour, anti-social or violent neighbours, and drugs. It is to them we speak as much as to so-called Middle England.

When I talk of rights being accompanied by responsibilities, it is also a message that is commonsense to traditional working-class families. And when I talk about the importance of strong families, I am talking about the foundation for a cohesive society and for strong communities. They are commonsense Labour values and it is time we spoke up for them again.

The new right has equally failed to meet the fundamental challenge of providing security in a word of change. Though it asked some of the right questions in the 1980s about how we could be more enterprising as a nation, in the end it was a project more successful at destroying than creating. It failed to tackle investment in capacity and people and to cut long term unemployment, just as it failed on education, the NHS, crime and welfare reform.

Socially the Conservatives found few solutions to the social breakdown that they themselves had accelerated. The right developed a form of economic libertarianism that often lapsed into greed, selfishness and moral irresponsibility. The right's wish to abdicate its responsibility from preparing people for change is why it is incapable of meeting the challenges that people are facing.

We must move beyond the solutions of the old left and the new right. Forging this new agenda will take time. There are no easy solutions. But I believe it is only a reinvigorated left-of-centre that is capable of helping people cope with change.

First, the choice is not between resisting change and just letting it happen. Not between the state trying to run industry or some rather crude version of laissez faire liberalism. Investing in education and skills; putting in place a system of lifelong learning; a partnership between public and private sector to renew a nation's infrastructure; backing for small businesses; ensuring the country is at the forefront of science and research; regenerating run-down inner city areas and regions; above all creating the right framework for the harnessing and developing of new technologies; all require active government. That does not necessarily mean government from the centre. It may be a mix of public and private enterprise. It may not be government at all but the private sector, given a strong competitive framework in which to exist, or the voluntary sector, a potential third force that can deliver services in a far more imaginative and creative way. But without a government that recognises the scale of the challenge and has some sense of urgency in acting to meet it, change will end up being perceived as an enemy and not a friend, a threat and not an opportunity.

Second, the left-of-centre is the true position of moral purpose today. The only way to rebuild social order and stability is though strong values, socially shared, inculcated through individual and family. This is not some lurch into authoritarianism or an attempt to impose a regressive personal morality. It is, in fact, about justice and fairness. The strong and powerful can protect themselves. Those who lose most through the absence of rules are the weak and the vulnerable. The first casualties of social breakdown are often the poor and disadvantaged. That is why the left should treat it seriously.

Why is it the left that is best able to tackle the problems of social disorder? Because a society based on strong values has at its heart respect for others and mutual responsibilities. Obligation to more than oneself. Crude individualism of left or right won't work. The family is important because it is in the family that self-respect and respect for others are learned. It is in the family that the limits of freedom are first experienced and the roots of responsibility put down. The family is the antithesis of narrow selfishness.

Of course, elements of the right, at least in theory, would assert notions of respect for others, but this is about more than not mugging your neighbour. It is where the traditional values of the left, applied practically to the modern world, are our strength. The left can fashion a new moral purpose for the nation which combines individual and social responsibility and which can assert the importance of social rules and order, because through its belief in social justice and mutual respect it has some chance of achieving them. It has the moral authority to enforce the rules because it sets them within an active and strong community.

 

Attacking the establishment

I believe that many of those who supported the Tories in the 1980s were not really Tories but anti-establishment. But in reality many of the Tories wanted nothing more than to buy it out. The personnel has been changed slightly but the attitudes have not. Building a meritocracy is not about replacing a hereditary elite based on birth with a similar elite only this time based on wealth. It must be about giving more people the opportunities and chances to share in the nation's wealth and power.

The aim must be to break down the barriers so that every one of our citizens has the chance to get on and succeed. We are still a country riddled with old boy networks, cosy cartels, restrictive practices.

These are Labour's enemies. These are the people that hold the consumer to ransom and shut down opportunities for ordinary families. Our legal system is a nest of restrictive practices. The intake of Oxford and Cambridge from public schools has barely shifted in 30 years. Our education system is divided. We have hereditary peers voting on legislation in the House of Lords. And monopolies and cartels mean the privatized utilities, for example, seem to be run in the interest of directors and not consumers. We are light years away from being a true meritocracy — a country in which the talents of all can flourish.

 

New Labour

I have shown why I believe New Labour is the party most capable of meeting the new challenges that face us and providing the leadership the country needs. In short there are five key components to New Labour.

First, New Labour moves beyond the solutions of old left and new right. We are a radical party that rejects some of the bureaucratic solutions of the old left, and the market dogma of the new right which has been shown not to work, and instead forges a new agenda around our core values and our belief in building a strong civic society. We believe in a partnership between public and private sectors, a better deal for consumers, an end to boom and bust, and making use of new technology so that we provide the security and skills people need.

Second, New Labour distinguishes ends from means. That is what the change to Clause 4 was all about. The commitment to wholesale nationalisation and an old-fashioned view of production have been replaced by a clear statement of the left-of-centre's values: power, wealth and opportunity for all, social justice, equality between people; democracy, respect for the environment; an international not an insular view of Britain; support for family and community life. It is our values that form the basis of our socialism not an economic prescription fashioned a century ago.

Third, New Labour reclaims ground that we should never have let go of. Freedom. Responsibility. Family. Efficiency. These are Labour words and we should never have let the Tories take them from us. It is right that with opportunity comes responsibility. It is right that we are the party that supports the family.

Fourth, New Labour develops new ideas for the changing world. A global economy and a social revolution mean that we must find new thinking to address new problems. Welfare must adapt to new work patterns and for a new workforce. These important questions cannot be answered by the old ideologies. I have explained in this article why I believe only the left is able to meet these challenges.

Fifth, New Labour draws strength from the grassroots so that it is in touch with the people we seek to represent. The rise in membership of more than 120,000 has resulted in a new culture of openness. As the Clause 4 vote in favour of change showed, grassroots members are in touch with mainstream opinion. By the next election more than half of our members will have joined since 1992. Those members are being given a direct say in the decisions of the Party. They backed the change to Clause 4 by nine to one. MPs are now elected by one member one vote. Our relationship with the trade unions is being put on a new footing to reflect the participation of ordinary trade unionists on a basis in which no special favours are owed to anyone.

In short, my politics are simple not complex. I believe you can have a country of ambition and aspiration with compassion and a sense of duty to others. The individual prospers best within a strong, decent, cohesive society. These are the real ends of the left-of-centre. The means of achieving them will, of course, vary from generation to generation and they should be pragmatically not ideologically driven.

Based on this central belief and the principles enshrined in our new constitution we are building a policy platform to address the need for security and social stability in a world of change. It is these key issues that this journal has begun to address and I hope will continue to explore in the coming months.

  • partnership between a thriving private sector and public enterprise to prepare the country for economic change;
  • partnership at work and an end to the old conflicts between management and workforce;
  • a revolution in our country's education and skills;
  • the reform of welfare to make it, as it should be, a platform of opportunity not a recipe for dependency. Tackling the new challenges posed by the growing number of old people who will need both the security of a decent pension and affordable elderly care;
  • public services that are accountable and decentralised while rejecting two-tierism and division;
  • a programme to fight crime that recognises both prevention and punishment— tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime;
  • democracy that is open, reformed and devolved;
  • engaging constructively with Europe so that we can shape it to meet Britain's needs.

There will inevitably be overlap between right and left in the politics of the 21st century. The era of the grand ideologies, all-encompassing, all-pervasive, total in their solutions—and often dangerous— is over. In particular, the battle between market and public sector is over. The value systems and the objectives will, of course, be different but there will be some policy convergence and we should be relaxed not tribal about that.

This should reflect itself in a more open more pluralistic style of government, with a more healthy exchange of ideas. The lesson we learn from Labour's great reforming government of 1945, is that we need a broad coalition of support on the left. It was, after all, the Liberals Beveridge and Keynes who were two of the most influential drivers of post-war change. Just as it was the radical New Liberals at the beginning of the century who sought far reaching social change.

I believe that the left-of-centre is beginning to be reborn in this country with a new purpose and a new vigour. We have a story to tell about the way in which we can shape change for the benefit of all our citizens, and the way in which we can provide stability and social order amidst upheaval. Our traditional values and instincts, now enshrined in our constitution, guide us while the means of achieving our goal of a strong civic society will change.

The process of change is not complete. It will continue. It reflects change that left-of-centre parties all over the world are undertaking.

It is this debate about the challenges of the coming century that should engage all of us on the left-of-centre. I welcome a debate on these key questions where the left should be providing the lead. Renewal is a journal that has recognised the need for modernisation from the beginning. It has been a valuable forum for debate. Its relaunch this month will, I hope, give it a new lease of life as a journal that will continue to think imaginatively and fearlessly, giving a platform to a wide range of views on the left. The left I believe is back in business — ready to provide the leadership this country needs. It must now show the confidence and open-mindedness to map out this new course for Britain.

If we are given the chance to serve, I believe passionately that Britain will be a better place. We will no longer be settling for second best but be proud once again of our country. I believe that those who have felt excluded from the mainstream of society will be given the opportunity to get on, that the economy will be run in the interests of all, and that people will feel more secure, that their children are taught in better schools, the NHS is safe and not about to be sold off, and that our streets are safer to walk on. But perhaps less tangibly I believe that people will see Britain as a more tolerant, less divided, more outward looking and optimistic country where all our citizens feel they have a future. 

Renewal