Nowadays, when a government reaches halfway, a ‘stocktaking’ is expected. And there has been some stocktaking of the present Government, but of a rather muted sort; ‘muted’ because it is difficult to stocktake a government which looks electorally impregnable but whose future course is uncertain to everyone except the Prime Minister. Electorally, there seem to be no dangers. If the Eddisbury by-election result is the best the Conservatives can do at midterm, Mr Blair has little to fear. Despite this, however, and despite the fact that he has an overall aim – modernisation – from which he will not deviate, the Prime Minister is said to be ‘frustrated’, as the observer who looks for a coherent programme is likely to be, since it is not at all clear what Mr Blair means by ‘modernisation’. Nor is it possible to infer a complete programme from the Government’s actions, many of which are incomplete and some of which are anything but modern.

In its thinking New Labour is dependent primarily on one sociological premise: that the manual working class is no longer a reliable base for the Labour Party, simply because the working class has so declined in numbers and therefore in political potential. From this it follows that the predominant class, politically and numerically, is now the broad middle class and that electoral success can be achieved only if a political party has significant support within that class – which is what the Conservatives also believed. Mondeo man is thus the same as Essex man. Lurking nearby is a related premise: that each class has a particular ideological ‘fit’ and that what fitted the old working class (and thus Old Labour) does not fit the new middle class. It is apparent, however, that the Government has only a vague notion of what this new fit might be; and to the extent that it has such a notion it is not helpful from the Labour Party’s point of view. Mondeo men and women do not like paying taxes, they are not very community-minded, they like the good life and ‘freedom of choice’. They do not like trade unions. They admire businessmen. They are suspicious of the state, which is always thought to be on their backs. They might be induced to accept a more ‘compassionate’ social policy so long as it is introduced behind their backs. These likes and dislikes, if real, are obviously not much good to any kind of Labour Party since there is next to nothing a Labour Party can offer a class which has them. No wonder New Labour cannot find the appropriate ideology.

It may well be that this is unnecessarily pessimistic. It is certainly the case that the broad middle class is now the one that matters, but it is perfectly possible to devise a coherent political programme which is consonant both with the traditions of the Labour Party and with the assumptions on which the Government now operates. Ideologies are not dependent solely on particular social classes – things never fit that neatly – and the middle class does not have such a narrow range of values. If, however, we take New Labour on its own ground, what sort of programme could emerge? Despite what is sometimes thought, social change has not worked to Labour’s disfavour. The old industrial working class has undoubtedly declined, but so has the hierarchy of class and status of which it was a part. In the sense that old authority and old privilege were as much a part of this hierarchy as the old working class, the decline of one has accompanied the decline of the other. Britain is now more ‘democratic’ in opinion and attitude than it has ever been; and the electoral chances of a widely based democratic party have never been better. What brought the Conservatives to ruin was their attempt to yoke democratic sociological change to the maintenance of old authority and old privilege. The Labour Party has no interest in trying the same thing.

One corollary of broadening democracy is large-scale constitutional and institutional reform. Everything that New Labour says it wishes to promote presupposes a broadening of active citizenship, a devolution of power, the democratisation of institutions; and everything that has happened in the past twenty years points to their inescapability – if only to forestall a repetition of the political fiascos which marked those years. But, in practice, New Labour’s contribution to political renewal has been slight. The Government’s main achievement – Scottish and Welsh devolution – was inherited from Old Labour and could not be sidestepped. New Labour’s one advance towards the political modernisation of the nation has been the direct election of London’s mayor – by no means a bad thing, but by itself hardly a programme of renewal. If we set against this what has not been done, the slimness of the achievement becomes even more obvious. It is hard to believe that despite everything said and done over the last few years, the Government has no agreed proposals for the House of Lords; and seems unwilling even to contemplate a wholly elected upper chamber. Unless there is a marked change of heart we will probably end up with an upper chamber that is as much of a museum piece as the present one. Nor are we likely to get further electoral reform: indeed, even less likely now that the old lags of Old Labour have convinced themselves that PR was responsible for the Euro election debacle. We are unlikely even to get reform of the House of Commons. Despite having two female Leaders of the House, its procedures are no more women-friendly. The decay of the House as an institution continues and nothing has been done to reverse it. Increasing the authority of its Select Committees would be one solution, but it would weaken the executive, and this Government, like its predecessor, is not prepared to do that. As far as one can see, reform of the House hasn’t progressed much beyond the dropping of one gold stick or black rod (or something) from the ceremonial opening of Parliament.

In fact, in its approach to the political system and ‘modernisation’, the Blair Government is much more like John Major’s than people have noticed. The attack, both rhetorical and actual, on local government, and particularly on local education authorities, continues. Thus the fate of grammar schools is now to be decided by ‘parents’ – that is, by people whose interest is necessarily fleeting and who are rarely in a position to make a long-term judgment. ‘Strong’ authorities are replaced by ‘weak’ ones – a pattern made familiar by the previous Government. If, as an index of ‘modernity’, we choose the degree to which effective power is broadly distributed – i.e. the extent of local government’s political autonomy – it is plainly the case, at least in England, that government was more ‘modern’ under Old Labour.

Much the same applies to the Freedom of Information Bill. That the Bill sets out to protect ministers and civil servants from excessive democratic enquiry is clear. Less clear is its other aim, which is to force secondary agencies and individuals to take the blame when things go wrong. The Government has commended the legislation on the grounds that it would give people rights over local bodies like schools and hospitals – which is what really matters. In other words, the Bill as it stands is exactly analogous to the Citizens’ Charters, Major’s contribution to British government. The hapless doctor or chairman of an LEA, operating wholly within circumstances determined by central government, becomes ‘accountable’, while central government hides behind the smokescreen. Unless substantially amended, the Bill will simply accentuate such inequity. This is an important matter. Effective freedom of information legislation has been introduced in all the English-speaking countries – countries with which New Labour likes to compare itself – and must be regarded as essential in a modern democracy. That the Government was never serious about it was made apparent when the Cabinet handed over the drafting of the legislation to the Home Office – the last department of state to which any such legislation should have been sent.

Equally depressing is the Government’s attitude to the honours system and everything implied by it. The system is at present a dignified relic of a carefully calibrated social hierarchy. The Government could have left it alone, ignored its political and social implications and exploited it as a useful form of patronage. Or it could have abolished it, replacing it with something new or with nothing at all. What it should not have done is what Major did, which was to recognise that it was no longer appropriate but decline to be rid of it. Major’s solution was to ‘democratise’ it by giving people a say in who gets what. So now we have people’s knighthoods, as we have a people’s monarch and (had) a people’s princess. This achieves the worst of both worlds: it demeans the system without reforming it. (It’s no surprise that there have been few people’s knighthoods.) Harold Wilson at least stopped creating hereditary peers and dishing out political knighthoods. The present Government has not taken any equivalent steps. It can be objected that all of this is symbolic, but in politics symbols matter. They advertise the character of a political movement and of the society it hopes to govern. The society these highly graded honours once adorned and reinforced is now largely gone and the Government needs to symbolise that.

Within the Labour Party’s history the tradition of constitutional and political reform has largely been a dissident one: always there but always subordinate to other traditions thought more important. For New Labour, however, this tradition is crucial, partly because of the premise on which it rests (that the social base of politics is now a broad, democratic middle class); partly because (officially) it has more or less abandoned many of the Party’s other traditions, particularly redistributionary ones. Whether it likes it or not, the historical reputation of the Blair Government will stand or fall on the extent of its constitutional or political reforms. At the moment it is neither standing nor falling, but teetering. It is more likely that we would have got these reforms from a Labour Party led by John Smith – not something New Labour should be proud of.

The Party may in the past have been only a nervous reformer of the constitution, but it has, very definitely, been the party of the public sector. This is not a tradition New Labour would repudiate; but however much its instincts favour a vigorous public sector it is highly ambivalent about it – about how far it should be funded and how far it should be universal. There are two reasons for this. The first is the influence of the Treasury; the second is Middle England and its presumed hostility to taxation and public spending. Wasn’t it one of the errors of Old Labour to be a tax-and-spend party? These fears are overplayed: there is little reason why New Labour should not continue to be the party of the public sector. As for the Treasury, any modernising party should dethrone it. One of the most retrograde developments of the last two years is the way the Treasury has consolidated its hold over Labour’s priorities. Take the problems of London Underground: a hopeless ‘solution’ has (seemingly) been reached because the Government hasn’t the nerve to override the Treasury’s rules on public-sector borrowing. Why should New Labour, any more than Old Labour, live with its continued obstructiveness? The Party has traditionally had a tense relationship with the Treasury, but the super-caution that Blair’s Government practises is merely self-defeating. The Treasury’s historical record gives it no claim to a special wisdom.

The Government is also mistaken in its view of Middle England. People’s attitudes to taxation – assuming they even know how much they pay – are more complicated than the myths about taxation suggest. Unless rates are punitive, people tend to support the status quo: the top marginal rate of 40 per cent, for instance, was not introduced as a result of pressure from Middle England. At the last election the Liberal Democrats were thought by the spin doctors to have made a fatal mistake in promising to add a penny to the standard rate to fund education. Yet there is not the slightest evidence it did them any harm. Labour would do much better here to follow its instincts rather than jump at shadows. It would also do well to reject the view that the public sector is in some way a proletarian thing, something Middle England does not like. If anything, the reverse is true. The middle classes make more use of the NHS, public transport, public libraries, local swimming pools, public parks and their right to state welfare than anyone else. The Government is already discovering the public consequences of underfunding the NHS. Given, as another instance, the extent to which the middle class relies on the rail network, its cries of outrage are hardly surprising. Or hardly surprising to anyone outside the Government. It is astonishing that in the last two and a half years so little has been done about the railways. An announcement that Railtrack was to be renationalised would probably cause a sigh of relief to be heard throughout the Home Counties. The fact that the railway infrastructure has been dreadfully neglected is widely known and accepted. On the other hand, the Government shouldn’t be so bashful about advertising its genuine achievements in social security spending: Middle England likes enhanced child allowances as much as anyone. In this sense Middle England is European rather than American – which is perfectly compatible with New Labour’s worldview.

Middle England is also less keen than many think on ‘free choice’ in the provision of public goods. Few among the country’s élites now defend comprehensive education. Although the Government has said ‘no selection’, selection is being practised, not via the 11-plus, but via the league tables and the relentless publicity attendant on them. Here the Government is, once again, in two minds: it doesn’t wish selection to return but it has adopted a competitive model of education. It would do well to think more about the origins of comprehensive schools. Why did Mrs Thatcher approve the foundation of so many of them? Why were some of the first authorities to go comprehensive Conservative? The answer is that the pain of selection fell more heavily on the ‘ordinary’ middle class than on anyone else: the upper middle class was usually unaffected and most working-class families had such low expectations of education that they passively accepted whatever came their way. Failure in the 11-plus was a terrible blow – and a real possibility – to a lower middle-class family. The comprehensive schools may not have been their ideal but they were better than the secondary moderns and eliminated the stress of selection. The broad middle class, New Labour’s class, understands better than anyone that in a system of ‘free choice’ only some get their choice. For everyone who succeeds another must fail: a point parents make loudly when local comprehensives begin to practise selection. Furthermore, those parents who did go to a secondary modern have little doubt that their children have had it very much better than they did. Despite what we are told, I do not think that the broad middle class believes in either selection or ‘diversity’, nor does it hold to a competitive model of education. Labour gains nothing by conniving with the attacks on the comprehensive schools, or on those who teach in them, and is as likely to alienate the voters it aims to please as win their support.

The fact that parents complain when schools start selecting suggests that Middle England, too, can have grievances. New Labour, however, inclines to a grievance-free model of politics. The Government works on the assumption that we can largely agree on everything; or that people with whom we do not agree, like Tony Benn or Roy Hattersley, are people whom history has passed by. It’s a view that leaves New Labour with no explanation for the magnitude of its victory in 1997. That was a very strong expression of grievance (as well as exasperation with Tory incompetence). It represented a powerful reaction against the behaviour of the country’s rich and to that extent had to do with good old class envy: see the results in Basildon and other strongholds of Mondeo people. How does New Labour explain the fact that the Liberal Democrats didn’t win in its place, or that the Party would have won easily under John Smith? Labour won, not because it was New (or not only), but because of its historic character as the principal party of ‘progress’: a position it still holds, regardless of the current size of the industrial working class. Indeed, its status as the party of progress is probably more acceptable to the broad middle class precisely because the industrial working class is now so much less important to the Labour Party. The Party has always tried to embrace the ordinary middle class: what has largely kept them at arm’s length has been Labour’s ideological and institutional ties to the organised working class. The fact that these ties are today so much weaker, and that the Conservative Party finds it difficult to exploit them (until now its trump card) gives the Government more room for manoeuvre, since it suggests that the ideology which ‘fits’ Middle England is much more assimilable to the traditions of the Labour Party. Forgetting this was one of the mistakes the Conservatives made: a lesson to all New Labour politicians.

If it is right that there is now no inherent hostility between Middle England and the Labour Party, why is the Government so reluctant to exploit this? One reason is that people find it very hard to break with their own histories. Although New Labour ministers constantly assert their radical and modernising purpose, their thinking is dominated by the political culture in which they were raised, and they have little confidence in their ability to transform or even modify it. As Marx observed with increasing dismay, political actors tend to remain trapped within traditional institutions and ideas, even when these are merely the detritus of social change: the Government’s attitude to reform of the House of Lords is a good example. It requires an enormous effort of will and intellect for people to free themselves from the weight of the past. Major, whose vision of a democratic middle-class society is close to Blair’s, was unable to do it and came spectacularly to grief. If Blair is to avoid a similar fate when his luck runs out, which it inevitably will, he will have had to free himself from the past.

The inclination towards inertia or at least incompleteness is accentuated by the sociology of New Labour. It is more introverted, probably more dependent on insiders, than any previous government, even Mrs Thatcher’s. Its world is the world of the think-tank – which is to say, the world of apolitical expertise. The whole of think-tank technology – polling, focus groups, ‘communications’ – is conducive to risk-avoidance; people become more concerned not to do things than to do them, because doing anything at all has its dangers. But a risk-free model of politics, such as New Labour has developed, finds it difficult to put in place policies appropriate to modernisation. After all, to modernise a whole society is to excite opposition. Many people do not like modernisation: it requires them to think and act differently, as well as demanding a government which is prepared to say unpopular things. And if the Prime Minister cannot cope with public-sector recalcitrance, wait till he meets the real opposition.

There has been much misplaced adulation of the United States in the last twenty years: the one thing we can borrow from America (and the other major English-speaking democracies) which unquestionably works is the one thing we won’t – a relatively open immigration policy. American society is constantly renewed by immigration, as is the innovativeness and drive of its economy. We should bear in mind how culturally and economically impoverished Britain would have been without the postwar Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigration. That has now largely stopped (and is unlikely to be replaced by migration from the EU), even though it was a major source of entrepreneurial flair in a country where that is in short supply. It is difficult to think of a policy which would be more modernising. To attempt it, however, involves risk and a readiness to tell home truths to an electorate which is thought by the political class (on the whole, I think, wrongly) to be incorrigibly xenophobic. The Government can afford to take risks. The Prime Minister remains very popular; the Party has a huge majority and faces a weak opposition; social change is on its side and Middle England is politically far more interesting than it thinks.

‘There is nothing more ridiculous than the notion that socialism is inexorably dying … The world we face today makes a socialist approach all the more relevant … The Nineties will not see the continuing triumph of the market, but its failure.’

Tony Blair, LRB, 29 October 1987

‘National competitiveness in the global marketplace … places inescapable responsibilities upon the state in such matters as investment, research and development, planning strategy, national infrastructure, and in making provisions for education and social security … market-obsessed solutions have made our problems worse.’

Gordon Brown, LRB, 2 February 1989

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Vol. 21 No. 20 · 14 October 1999

In 1983 I drove a Vauxhall Cavalier and discovered that I was the living symbol of petit-bourgeois machismo. Then I ran a Volvo, just at the time when everyone was calling us pricks. Now I have a bloody Mondeo and there are headlines about me in the LRB. Will Ross McKibbin (LRB, 30 September) please tell me what he drives so that I can sign up to Automobiles Anonymous?

Jerry White
Leamington Spa

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