Running before he has learnt to walk

May 1, 1998

Tony Blair's government is one year old today. What challenges lie ahead, what has it achieved so far and, if Labour celebrates ten years in power, how will Britain look in 2007? The experts give their verdicts.

Labour's first year: what next?

As Tony Blair completes his first year in office he has reason to feel satisfied. Compared with his predecessors, his government's popularity is astonishingly tenacious. At the same point in John Major's administration, support had collapsed from 33.8 per cent to 16 per cent. Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher all suffered a slump on the first anniversary of their election wins. Blair's support, however, is almost where it was on May 1 1997. So the question is: can he keep it up? What does the future hold?

The first challenge facing new Labour is to improve social justice; to ensure that the poorest in society get a better deal. Here the problem is as it was at the election: how to ensure that the disadvantaged are included in a political culture in which individualism predominates? Gordon Brown's first two budgets redistributed money from the wealthy to the less wealthy, while building up a war chest for the second half of the parliament and keeping finances tight. It is a balancing act that will get more difficult. The key question is: "Will social justice continue to be sacrificed to tight money?" The answer: "Yes".

The second challenge is cutting the unemployment rate and expanding the skills base. The old idea of full employment - 97 per cent of the workforce in work - has become full employability; everyone able to work having the right skills. Both remain pipe-dreams in the era of post-Keynesian macro-economics. Making work pay more than benefits is fine when the economy is growing but what happens when the downturn comes? Labour has set itself very demanding targets in this area - every long-term unemployed young person in a job or training. The minimum wage may well end up pricing low-paid workers out of work. The balance between flexibility for employers and the rights of their employees in terms of hours, lay-offs and rates, expressed through the debate about union recognition and harmonisation issues with Europe, will become an increasingly dominant issue. The question is: "Can Labour deliver full employability?" The answer: "No".

The third challenge is building political trust. The renewal of trust in politics after two decades of political corruption at levels not seen since the 18th century is linked to the process of democratisation in the Labour Party. The key question: "Did 1997 represent the low point in political alienation or the beginning of an even deeper decline? Can anything be done?" The answer: "Maybe". Every time it appears that new Labour has regained the moral high ground something dirty emerges on funding. The state funding of political parties would defuse the issue and allow the break with the trade unions that the Blairites favour for electoral reasons. For a government dominated by presidential-style politics keeping the party on board will be harder. Expect John Prescott to become more involved in keeping the troops happy.

The fourth challenge is accountability. New Labour is asking voters to appreciate the different competencies of government and allocate blame accordingly. As more functions are devolved to local government, and as more services are contracted out, so political judgements become more complex. The key question: "Will the electorate learn the art of subsidiarity in their voting and punish the responsible rather than the most visible layer of government?" The answer: "No." The much heralded renewal of local democracy will be tightly controlled. There will be devolved assemblies and elected mayors, but power will not be surrendered by the centre.

The fifth challenge concerns activist movements. Politics for the chemical generation is the transport of veal calves and the saving of trees from developers. The key question: "At present, unprecedented numbers feel excluded from politics: is that exclusion permanent?" The answer: "No." New Labour is very responsive to interest groups that are connected to discernible voting patterns. As the next generation grows into voters, its demography will appear on the Millbank radar screen. But there is little to suggest that the substance of the activist critique of contemporary capitalism will be accepted. The environment remains subservient to the gods of growth and consumption. In some things, old Labour values still dominate this government.

Brian Brivati is reader in history at KingstonUniversity and co-editor of New Labour in Power: Precedents and Prospects, Routledge.

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