Labour's X file

November 15, 1996

Labour is so focused on winning the next election that it has pruned its policy pledges to avoid alienating potential voters. But the radically minded should not despair. Ben Pimlott dares to suggest what should be on the party's agenda for government.

Does Tony Blair intend to be a Labour Thatcher, a 20th-century Gladstone or a Bill Clinton without the sex? Close observers of the countdown are conscious of shifting role models. The success of the American president's cautious avoidance of risk-taking measures must be very tempting.

Between now and next year's general election, the spinners will probably concentrate on Clinton, with a dash of Kennedy thrown in. But what about after Blair has won? Those who have high hopes of a Labour government have long taken a tolerant view of pre-election pronouncements. Since almost any remark on policy that is not soaked in a warm bath of blandness seems to send voters into a panic, a well-guarded tongue has become the pre-eminent political virtue. For the same reason, the dullness of the pledges recently endorsed in Labour's plebiscite among the party faithful does not make the progressively-minded too depressed.

Yet some also have a dream: that, in a safe in the opposition leader's office, there exists a secret file labelled "hidden agenda", tied with a red ribbon. The same people like to imagine that, on day one of the new regime, the triumphant premier will undo the ribbon, and reveal the file's contents to his delighted colleagues. If the dream is true, there is the question of what the file does - or should - contain. What, in short, ought an incoming government go for, over the next five years, regardless of what it is currently promising? If Labour wins, what can it hope to achieve, given that it will be the first left-of-centre administration in British democratic history to come to power with a fair economic wind behind it?

The basic answer is obvious, after 18 years of impotence: winning in 2002. In this respect at least Blair will want to emulate Clinton - by becoming a two-term prime minister. Politics in the United Kingdom, however, is different from in the United States. Here, people expect governments to do things: and experience suggests that the electorate prefers an active prime minister to a wimpish one.

Blair would therefore do well to take a leaf out of the Thatcher book. The Tories kept winning for all kinds of reasons, but the most important was the sense of movement they managed to convey. Restless innovation was their mode. The history of the 1980s is of Labour as the also-ran party limping to keep up, and always left behind: on markets, industrial relations, council house sales, privatisation, grant-maintained schools. The first thing a new government will need to do is create its own momentum.

But in what direction? Old-fashioned collectivism is out: so the party will have to think up something else. "Getting the economy right" is the archetypal ambition of an incoming government, but publicly-declared Labour philosophy includes no wonder theory and it is scarcely plausible to imagine it unveiling one. Yet the economic implications of Britain's stance on the European Union are profound. Since the most urgent policy issue - as Sir Robin Butler will point out to Mr Blair the moment he steps into No 10 - is the single European currency, it would be a good idea to have a firm position on that. We know that Gordon Brown is in favour, Robin Cook probably against, while Blair sits on the fence - a classic triangle. Unfortunately, it is an unstable one, and a new administration will have barely six months to make up its mind one way or the other (unless it goes for the least satisfactory approach of all, and waits for a "second wave" of signatories), before events catch it on the hop.

Labour may therefore be wise to take the plunge sooner rather than later. If the new government takes a positive view of the single currency early on, much will stem from that. Of course, Blair will have to deal with his own Eurosceptics, but this will be easier during the honeymoon, and a boldly participatory approach will make it possible to exercise a degree of British Gaullism later. Involvement in the great changes that will be taking place will provide a sense of mission, while also marginalising more than half the Tory party as the debate moves on, much as Mrs Thatcher marginalised Labour after 1979.

At the same time, attention must be paid to key words in the new Labour lexicon, like "community" and "citizenship". Blair wants to make us good citizens who strengthen the community. Fair enough. To help us self-improve, however, there must be long overdue institutional and political, as well as constitutional, change. The knotty problem of Scotland apart, there is a need to restore the creaking legitimacy of the Westminster government throughout the United Kingdom. A speedy removal of the voting powers of hereditary peers, followed by the establishment of a hybrid second chamber would be a start. There is much to be said for the proposal put forward by Winston Churchill as home secretary before the first world war, for a House of Lords Senate that is two-thirds elected, and one-third appointed. In addition, a government that announced plans for proportional representation without being blackmailed by the Liberal Democrats would gain brownie points all round - taking everybody by surprise, pulling the rug out from Paddy Ashdown's feet, and making it easier to impose Labour's moderate version (based on the Plant committee's recommendation) for the alternative or supplementary vote rather than foreign models that undermine the single-member constituency; and making a recurrence of a Thatcher-style majority-seat, minority-vote elective dictatorship exceedingly unlikely.

The most important item on the institutional agenda would be the re-invention of local government and the establishment of properly democratic councils which ensure that "citizenry" and "community" are not hot air. There can be no question, of course, of filling the hole created by Tory centralist policies by restoring old-style Tammany Hall councils and councillors - heaven forbid. However, a revived and refashioned system of single-tier authorities, with elected executive mayors and a statutory protection (short of federalism) against Westminster interference is a far greater need - if communitarian values are the aim - than a half-hearted regionalism which nobody wants.

Reviving a sense of local community through recreated local structures would also provide the key to the two other priority areas of policy: poverty and education.

It would be a disgrace, more than a disgrace, a national tragedy, a reason for emigration, if a left-of-centre government turned its back on the poor simply because it was afraid of the electoral consequences of raising the money to help them. Tony Atkinson, warden of Nuffield College, Oxford has recently proposed that the government should adopt an official poverty line set at 50 per cent of average income, and that the Office of National Statistics should produce an annual report assessing how far the target of eradicating poverty, thus defined, has been reached. That would help. Such a policy would focus on "outcomes" and would depend, not just on benefit levels, but also on macro-economic, employment, training and health policies.

Community, citizenship and poverty all point inescapably in the direction Blair has identified as his principal concern: education, or as he put it (so as to leave no doubt that it is his personal top priority), "education, education, education". But if "education" is to be the Blairite equivalent of Wilson's white heat of technology, what does doing something about it mean?

At a recent Times forum, the opposition leader was far from explicit. Neither is Labour's recent policy document very helpful. Labour has one or two interesting novelties - such as Gordon Brown's imaginative University for Industry - together with some broad-brush promises (smaller classes, nursery school places, and so forth) of a kind Labour has made since the 1960s. But there has been no commitment to root-and-branch reform of the kind that a pledge by a radical party to make educational improvement its central policy seems to imply.

Let us hope, therefore, that within the hidden agenda file there is a fattish envelope labelled "education, education, education"; and that this envelope contains, not just a blueprint for change, but an IOU made out to the schools and colleges of Britain marked "money, money, money". This was the bottom line of Sir Claus Moser's independent report, published a couple of years ago. The reality is simple. Although schools cannot be improved simply by increasing the amount spent on them, it is a colossal error to imagine that anything but a continuation of the present downhill spiral will occur without a massive injection of funds - directed, in particular, at the luckless schools whose plight the new hierarchy of grant-maintained, grammar and semi-selective comprehensives has made worse.

If it is serious, the new government must not shirk the cost - or steal from Peter to pay Paul by squeezing more privileged academies. Some of the cash might come by cutting the still-inflated defence budget. Some might come from the fruits of growth which, willy-nilly, are likely to accrue in the opening phase of the new administration, and must not be frittered away. If, however, there is a serious intention to make a tangible difference to the quality of teaching and learning in our schools, so that Britain can be proud of its education system at the beginning of the millennium instead of bitterly ashamed of it, there is a requirement for more than crumbs and moralising or a new exercise in re-arranging deck-chairs on the Titantic. There are other questions relating to education - what should be done about selection, for instance - but nothing matters more than decent pay to raise the status of the teaching profession; improved recruitment as a result; money for school sport; money for books; money for equipment.

The rest of the ideal hidden agenda really falls under the same headings: if the new administration deals robustly with the European, local government, poverty and education issues, other problems (relations with the unions, for example) will begin to fall into place. Law-and-order is of course largely a chimera. "Tough on crime", Blair famously said, "and on the causes of crime". But it is the causes of crime that can and must be tackled - poverty, lack of skills, sink schools and sink estates. Perhaps the new Labour government should take royal commissions out of mothballs to replace backs-of-envelopes as a policy source, and set up one on each.

Toughness on crime may be a necessary sop to tabloid atavism, but it is not cheap: expensive, overflowing jails are the result. Indeed, the frightening failure of a vengeful Tory government's treatment of offenders is a measure of the pointlessness of trying to take on social problems at the wrong end. Most of the headline issues of 1996 - guns, knives, discipline, social disintegration - are symptoms of the nation's blight, not problems that policy can do much about. Rhetoric about family values can do even less: in this, as in many things, it should be the aim of a new government to resist the temptation, that has served the country so ill, to reach for a populist panacea. In sum, the hidden agenda must do what the visible one so far has not: and relate policy to the facts, not short-termist estimates of public fashion.

Ben Pimlott is professor of politics at Birkbeck, and chairman of the ESRC Whitehall Programme.

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