Despite its toughest month in a thousand days, the striking thing about Blair's government is the level of consensus it has managed to achieve, explains Jennie Bristow
When Tony Blair celebrated his first 1000 days in office in January, many commentators remarked that he could not have chosen a worse month. The government came out of the new year celebrations marred by an apparent health service crisis and the spectacular failure of the Dome, and straight into a series of embarrassing gaffes and climbdowns. Mike Tyson came into Britain while General Pinochet was sent home to Chile; the government stood accused yet again of ignoring its own ethical foreign policy by selling parts of Hawk jets to Zimbabwe; and it found itself suddenly embroiled in a bizarre row about Section 28 of the Local Government Act - an ineffective piece of Thatcherite policy which prohibits the 'promotion' of homosexuality in schools. From the London mayor to the Welsh assembly, the government seemed to be losing votes and sympathies. And to top it all, while home secretary Jack Straw managed to infuriate London New Labourites with some ill-thought-out attacks on 'Hampstead liberals', Peter Kilfoyle, the junior defence minister who resigned his post at the end of January, accused London-centric New Labour of alienating the rest of the nation as well.
So yes, the government has had better months. But does any of this carping really pose a threat to Blair?
The prime minister himself seems far less ruffled by his 1000-day critics than he did by the realisation that he could still get his missus pregnant. 'In the end what is essential is to have a vision and stick to it', he said on 21 January. 'The daily headlines, the passing frenzies...all that comes and goes. But the vision of the big picture must remain.' And he is right to be confident. However much mudslinging Blair's government has to withstand, New Labour remains the only game in town.
Blair might think he has a vision, but part of the secret of his success has been precisely New Labour's lack of big ideas and grand schemes. When the government came to power in May 1997, a defining feature was its self-conscious political pragmatism. Traditional left-wing politics were unceremoniously ditched and replaced with the more consumer-led, business-friendly, non-committal language of the Third Way, while its campaign slogan held the great but non-specific promise, 'things can only get better'. New Labour quickly forgot about loyalties to its members and its traditional constituency, and became the ideal party of Middle England. What we witnessed in 1997 was the arrival of Britain's first post-political party.
What has changed since then? Things, apparently, can still only get better - note the way that every deficiency in schools, the health service and the economy is still smoothly blamed on the mistakes of the previous Tory administration. And although deputy prime minister John Prescott might make noises about wooing the party's core voters and Tony Blair makes trips to depressed rural areas like Cornwall in an attempt to share their pain, New Labour cares little about the electorate on the ground. Plaid Cymru might win in the Ceredigion by-election, but who is going to vote Tory or LibDem in a general election?
The only obvious difference between today's government and 1997's government-in-waiting is that the bold, forthright rhetoric used to usher in New Britain seems more subdued now. As Charlotte Raven observed, 'if New Labour was an electoral contrivance born out of bleak necessity, a Labour government was a wholly different matter'. Once in power, Blair's administration had to cope with the grotty reality gap of making its rhetoric into policy. The youthful Tony Blair, with his talk of a reborn nation built on enlightened values and modern priorities, provided a glimmer of inspiration in the dog days of Majorism. Fewer than three years in, he looks more like a weary father who spends his life coping with the everyday tedium of just sorting things out. Things are never so easy as they seem in opposition. So banning foxhunting looks nice as an election promise, but not so nice when it means barbour jackets camped outside your front door. Repealing Section 28 seems the most straightforward, inoffensive gesture going until a coalition of Scottish clergy and bigots starts making a fuss.
Again and again, New Labour's instincts seem to clash with what it seems capable of pulling off. Left to his own devices, Jack Straw would have extradited General Pinochet faster than you can say con carne, and would have been more than happy to banish Mike Tyson back to the United States. But faced with the wrath of Margaret Thatcher and Brixton boxing fans, he lost his bottle. So it's a free vote on hunting, a wobble over Section 28 and a climbdown on Tyson and Pinochet.
Is this, as some would like to believe, a series of victories brought about by a swell of long-awaited opposition to New Labour's prejudices? Hardly. The Countryside Alliance may look formidable compared with the Tory Party, but that only shows just how pathetic Hague's opposition is. Insofar as New Labour has given any ground, this is largely motivated by its own insecurities. Just as the emergence of a middle-aged newt-breeder like Ken Livingstone in the mayoral contest is enough to throw the party leadership into a blind panic, so a Scottish cardinal can turn what was an easy, uncontested move to rid the Local Government Act of a minor piece of unpopular legislation into a major media discussion and almost immediate relaxation of the government's line.
The tendency to panic in the face of criticism is the biggest indication of New Labour's weakness. In the paranoid fantasy world inhabited by the Blair administration, this government is fighting a relentless battle against the shadowy 'forces of conservatism' on the one hand, and the reds under Livingstone's bed on the other. But back on the ground, the forces of conservatism amount to little more than a handful of has-been aristocrats. The mayoral race is effectively a contest between five Labour candidates, with even the Tory contestant prepared to toe the government's line on funding the Tube (apparently the only aspect of London life the mayor will be expected to sort out). Labour supporters criticise the government only for not being New Labour enough, through failing to stick to pre-election promises, having a less-than-ethical foreign policy, and refusing to put General Pinochet on the next train to Spain. And as for the Tories - Hague might bray in the Commons, but most of their criticisms seem to be born out of little more than envy. They don't want to be anything other than New Labour - they just want to sit on the other side of the House.
New Labour's success has come less from its political strength than from the absence of any opposition. And what can look like a political climbdown is only a change of tactics. The ideas and motivations of the Blair administration are no different from those it trumpeted in opposition. But it has become more cowardly about putting some of its prejudices into practice as formal policy, and in terms of its pet projects, has shifted to a more softly, softly approach.
Notice how many of New Labour's new initiatives are voluntary. From proposals to provide 'growing up' camps for school-leavers to retirement camps for pensioners, enabling them to make the transition from work to a life of leisure, nobody is forcing anybody to be part of the government's project of inclusion. And notice how many initiatives are framed in terms of guidance and advice. There is no ban on smacking children, simply guidelines about what pressure to apply where; the National Family and Parenting Institute is not a borstal for expectant mums, but a body that gives you helpful advice on child-rearing. Teenagers are not to be forced to attend counselling sessions in schools, but provided with a 'learning mentor' with whom they can share their problems if and when they want. It was even reported in January that the Health Education Authority would be abolished precisely because of its 'nannying' campaigns warning of the dangers of sitting in the sun and drinking too much, to be replaced by a Health Development Agency, which will focus on specific targets for reducing cancer, strokes, heart disease and suicide. Of course, the substance of both campaign styles is the same - it all amounts to a demand to change your lifestyle habits. But bossiness dressed up as a neutral health campaign is much easier to swallow.
The voluntary, neutral-sounding way in which such initiatives makes it almost impossible for those who criticise New Labour's 'nanny-stateism' to be convincing. And in all but a very few cases, the government is not the nanny state, telling people what to do against their will, but the therapeutic state - offering a helping hand to what it perceives to be a vulnerable, feeble electorate in need of advice and guidance. That nobody can argue against this is just the icing on the cake.
'Struggle is part of politics. And here is the rub', proclaimed Blair, again on 21 January. 'Reform is hard, it causes dissent, it upsets vested interests, some very well-meaning. It can seem unfair, even when its very purpose is greater fairness in the long term.' Such get-tough, get-real rhetoric has become a well-known aspect of the personality Blair likes to project, and helps further the illusion, held dearly by those who want to criticise Labour's 'nanny state', that bossy-boots Blair gets a kick out of forcing people to conform. But when dissent and confrontation happen, they rage around issues that really don't matter. So what if the government feels forced to concede some ground on foxhunting, Section 28, Tyson or Pinochet? The media, the Tories and a few campaign groups can whip themselves into a 'frenzy' over these things while the government gets on with the quiet, insidious business of building New Britain.
If the government started its term in office as the party of 'new' politics, going beyond the old framework of left and right to represent the Third Way of the middle ground, in less than three years it has shown itself capable of going beyond politics itself. As the critics focus on parliamentary mishaps, climbdowns and broken promises, New Labour in parliament can seem beleaguered and defensive, and may well lose some votes. But ultimately, with nothing else out there, everybody that wants to be 'in' is somehow in New Labour. What is remarkable is not the criticisms Blair has attracted, but the level of consensus he has managed to create.
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Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000