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02 May 1997

Nightmare on Downing Street

New Labour by a landslide and all the pundits welcome an epochal shift in British politics. Everybody from the old hard left to the hard-line right says-get ready for the radical upsurge. We say-get real: the Tories were bad enough, but you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Tony Blair's Britain will be like an open prison, run by a government whose instinct is to regiment life, regulate behaviour, restrict freedoms and curb passions at every opportunity.

The key figures in Blair's team-Jack Straw, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Harriet Harman-are self-righteous, illiberal killjoys. But it is not merely the obnoxious personalities of Labour's frontbench team that lead us to expect that their regime will be even more unpleasant than that of the old gang. New Labour is a product of its times, and the 1990s are the age of the New Authoritarianism.

As their problems with Neil Hamilton and others revealed, the Conservative party is still influenced by the traditions and constituencies of the past. By contrast, New Labour has cut off its roots in the unions and the old labour movement and constructed a genuinely new machine. Its personalities and policies reflect merely the mood of the moment, a time of uncertainty and confusion in society when the general trend is always to clamp down, for fear that things might get out of control.

The sentiment of 'time for a change' that has swept New Labour into office reflects a widespread recognition that the old institutions of government and society are in disarray and that something new is needed. Yet as Tony Blair has acquiesced to Margaret Thatcher's dictum that 'there is no alternative' to the market system, major social changes have been ruled out from the start.

For a New Labour government that wants to change things, all that remains is to try to change the way people behave, to re-educate them and, if they refuse to conform, to coerce them. This is why every Labour policy, whether it is supposed to deal with the economy or education, will turn out in practice to be a law and order policy, such as workfare or parental supervision orders.

Get set for government ministers preaching sermons about how we ought to live every aspect of our lives-in the home, in the community, at work. But, though they may sound like vicars, these politicians are far from harmless. Blair's team are not only sanctimonious, their sanctimony has a sharp edge directed at those who refuse to follow their doctrines.

We predict that, under New Labour, our public and private lives are going to be more regulated and restricted than ever before. We are going to have more bans and censorship, more guidelines and codes of conduct, more ethics committees. We can also expect more police with wider powers, more surveillance cameras and watch schemes, and, perhaps even worse, more victim support schemes, more counselling, more caring professionals.

New Labour stands for the shift of power away from elected representatives in parliament towards unelected and unaccountable judges and civil servants, like Lord Justices Scott and Nolan, and to the commissions and quangos over which they preside. New Labour's withdrawal of its candidate in Tatton in favour of Martin Bell signalled its endorsement of the strategy of using allegations of sleaze and corruption to intensify public cynicism about politicians to weaken parliament and strengthen the authority of the judiciary-and even sections of the media.

New Labour's approval for the campaign of the Dunblane parents for stricter gun control, for Frances Lawrence's crusade for family values, and Blair's proposal for a US-style 'drugs tsar' to oversee the war against drugs-all these are initiatives that aim to recreate an institutional framework to regulate behaviour in society. They begin from a familiar focus of public anxiety, but move outside the established structures of politics. They elevate self-consciously 'non-political' individuals in the hope that these will carry greater moral authority than political leaders. They appeal to popular sentiment, but all ultimately require the sanction of the state to enforce an essentially authoritarian agenda.

Under Tony Blair we can expect to have even less freedom than we had under Margaret Thatcher. Neil Kinnock's warning on the eve of the 1983 general election echoes uncannily down the years:

'If Mrs Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.'

In the run up to the 1997 general election we warned people that participating in this charade of a democratic process could only lend legitimacy to a contest between two rival agencies of social control. Now we warn that New Labour presents real dangers to freedom and democracy, dangers that are all the greater because so many cling on to the illusion that Blair's party is merely Old Labour in disguise. But New Labour is New Labour. What you see is what you are going to get-and we need to get ready to deal with it.

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