Broken eggs and egos as all change

December 19, 1997

IT IS well established by those whose job it is to well establish these things that times of change bring the greatest stress.

The status quo carries many advantages to the comfortable and some to the not so comfortable. It is only the most wretched who wholly benefit from change. It is years since the Conservative party was true to its name by being in favour of conserving things as they are. Since 1981 it has been a radical force in favour, for better or worse, of change. On the other hand there have always been many in the Labour party who have been in favour of the status quo or at least of a gradualist approach.

This school of thought has traditionally, inside the Labour party divided into two: Fabians and Tribunites. The Fabians have been misnamed. General Fabius was not a gradualist at all. Rather he adopted a very sound and sensible military strategy, one which commends itself to all walks of life: "Only fight when you have to and only then when you can be sure of winning." Nevertheless, Fabianism has always been taken as the gradualist philosophy; move forward slowly, ensure each change has bedded in before moving on and always take people with you.

The Tribunites, who have just reinvented themselves in parliament and whose newspaper still carries the torch, have been more radical than the Fabians. But only just. Change, to the Tribunites, is something that is necessary to alleviate poverty and suffering and if you have to break a few eggs or egos on the way then so be it. But do not upset the apple cart.

So which of these two traditions does the new government fall into? Is Tony Blair the natural successor to Bevan, Foot and Kinnock, taking forward the Tribunite, soft left banner? Or is he rather the heir to the Gaitskell, Callaghan, Smith family tree?

The truth is that he is neither. Tony Blair and the new government and the majority (just) of the new Parliamentary Labour party are none of these. For modernisation, read change. For new Labour, read one member one vote; for new Britain, read Welfare to Work. For the new government, no change is no option.

Which leads us to the management of change, a subject extremely familiar to higher education. Two new schools of thought in new Labour are replacing the old Tribunite/Fabian division. Both seek change: the "take-no-prisoners tendency"and the "bring-them-with-you brigade".

The former are in a hurry. They know that change is essential but lack the patience or the inclination to waste time and energy on smoothing egos or compromising. The latter want to build consensus for the changes and to spend time minimising the discomfort caused by change. The former risk failure by antagonising their supporters and maximising opposition; the latter risk failure by running out of time.

Most Labour MPs are in one of these two new groups. (There are 47 who are in neither and whether because of Fabian or Tribunite instincts have chosen not to go down the Blair route by voting against the changes in lone parent benefit).

Indeed most of the PLP would be now happy to call themselves both Tribunite and Fabian. This is not because the two are now indistinguishable but that they both are reinventing themselves.

Until last week, when parliament voted on changes in lone parent benefits, the new government was very much in the first, "take-no-prisoners", camp. It may now have changed. The problem I have, and I suspect the majority of my colleagues share, is that I am not sure I want it to. What is certain is that the two major political parties are in favour of change. Now is the time for leadership.

Phil Woolas is MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, chair of the Tribune Newspaper Board and vice chair of the Parliamentary Tribune Group.

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