Critics of the Blairite "project" made a great mistake by accepting--indeed, embracing--the name "old Labour". Our error had honourable origins. We were prepared to renounce neither our past nor our principles. Our tactical blunder, however, was also the result of both arrogance and naivety. We had played our part in dragging the party back into the mainstream of politics when many of the "modernisers" had either occupied the wilder shores of socialism or were waiting nervously to discover if the tide would turn. Nobody, we thought, could accuse us of preferring opposition to government or of wanting to return to the politics of Keir Hardie and the policies of Attlee. But they did.
We, too, were modernisers. Our philosophy was far more relevant to the needs of the 21st century than "the project" could have hoped to be. But although we applauded the decision to replace Clause Four of the 1918 Labour constitution with a new statement of Labour's purpose, we failed to offer an alternative. The global economy had increased the need to struggle for the truly free society which can come about only through greater equality. We should have stopped arguing about the past and made clear that we had ideas for the future. Although the name lacks the resonance of "new Labour", we should have called ourselves "modern social democrats", proclaimed the dawn of "modern social democracy" and begun to update our philosophy.
Statements of basic principle are out of fashion. Tony Blair practises the pragmatism preached by Harold Wilson because he does not realise that it is impossible to "decide issues on their merits" without a clear definition of what those merits are. He has fallen into the trap about which J M Keynes warned: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves to some defunct economist." The Prime Minister has, perhaps without realising it, become the market man. The economic panacea set out by Adam Smith in 1776 has become the "modern" solution to all problems of efficiency and allocation--even in health and education. It is not, in itself, a philosophy. But it is as near as new Labour gets.
Despite his scepticism about the value of philosophical speculation, Blair insists that his policies are driven by two moral imperatives--fairness and social justice. Admirable though those objectives are, as defining principles they suffer from a fatal flaw. Everybody believes in them. They are the bedrock even of Friedrich Hayek's philosophy. Hayek says it is neither fair nor just to "expropriate" earnings by taxation and spend the revenue on social policy.
A modern social-democratic government needs to build its programme on something more than a vacuous generality. Fifty years ago, the Labour Party had no time--and little need--for ideology. As long as it represented the interests of the people from whom it drew most support it was, in practice if not in theory, consistently egalitarian. But old-style working families are disappearing, most into the middle classes, some into poverty. Labour must become a party of ideas, not of class interest. They are certainly not provided by the Third Way, the burning deck on which now only Anthony Giddens stands. The best he could manage in Where Now For Labour? was "a hand up, not a handout". The ghosts of Tawney, Crosland and T H Green need not fear the competition.
Some Blairites have defined their ideology as the willingness to accept reality and adjust to new circumstances. This is an obligation that all politicians must accept. The changes in the class structure of society are a matter for rejoicing, rather than regret. But it makes the argument for greater equality even stronger. The poverty that remains is all the more unacceptable because of the affluence by which it is surrounded. And redistribution is politically most acceptable at times of …