'Without Ideology, the Role of Politicians Is No Longer to Persuade, Merely to Sell': Because It Governs without a Clear Set of Principles, New Labour's Policy-Making Is Incoherent and Its Reforms Are Slow. above All, It Lacks the Vocabulary to Shift Popular Opinion. Blair Tries to Capture the Centre Ground, Not Shift It

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As Labour bowls into Brighton, it is more powerful than at any time in its history and on the brink of a near-certain sweep to a third term in office. Yet the party is lost and rudderless. While victory in the next election is virtually assured, the manifesto is glued to the drawing board. The Third Way, it seems, offers nothing for a third term. Rarely in political history has a party with such accumulated might had so little clue what to do with it. The weakest link for new Labour has always been the absence of a coherent set of ideas, a guiding philosophy--and the weakness is becoming more apparent with the passage of time.

Ideology is a dirty word in new Labour circles. Tony Blair himself has said that the era of "all-embracing theories of politics--religious in nature, whose adoption would solve all human problems" is over and that there can be no "ideological preconditions" when approaching problems. Indeed, attempts to portray quite straightforward differences of opinion within the party as ideological certainly sound quaint. When Roy Hattersley declares that the reappointment of Alan Milburn is "a declaration of ideological war", you wonder how he would describe the contest between state communism and liberal capitalism before 1989.

New Labour's approach is summed up by the soundbite: "What matters is what works." By casting opponents on left and right as being trapped in outdated doctrines, Labour has positioned itself as moderate and modern, operating in the world as it is rather than as it theoretically ought to be. A true moderniser would rather have herpes than an ideology. Instead, new Labour has emphasised "timeless values"--fairness, responsibility, community or even, on a wild day, equality--and talked about how to apply them in today's world. Blair told Philip Stephens of the Financial Times that "in the first half of the 20th century we imbibed a Marxism, or quasi-Marxism even in forms of Fabian socialism, that ended up with us having incredibly rigid views about the state and its role ... And I think with me ... I have a very, very strong sense of values--but a diminished sense of preconception about how those values should be translated into practice."

Values have always animated political ideologies and philosophies, which in turn have provided a framework for policy. But by cutting out the ideological middleman, new Labour can go straight from values to policy: from fairness to the New Deal, without any need for social democracy along the way. Ideology has been replaced by "valuology".

The political advantages are obvious. While you are driven by deep values married to pragmatism, everyone else is a doctrinaire, swivel-eyed ideologue. And without any clear commitments to a particular philosophy, it is possible to steal the clothes of opponents almost at will: witness the recent Labour enthusiasm for attacking the numbers, job attendance rates and commitment of public servants.

There are also some real policy advantages. Very few of the problems faced by a 21st-century government have obvious solutions. In some cases, the unleashing of more market forces may well be in order (education, perhaps), while in others market forces may need to be kept under tight rein (health, perhaps). What matters is the quality of the resulting product, not the production process. This approach also seems to fit a consumerist society.

Those who oppose Blair within the party often use the absence of a clear ideology as a stick with which to beat him--but never come up with anything less vacuous. If the choice is between Blair's platitudes and someone else's, there is much to be said for the devil you know. It is not just new Labour that is sailing without any bearings--it is the entire centre left. Critics to the left of Blair are not fighting him with a worked-through version of social democracy, merely with reheated old Labour views about redistribution via higher taxes. …