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Not frightening the horses

Trevor Fisher spoke to a perplexed Will Hutton about Blairite neo-conservatism, micro-measures and privatisation dogma.

TF. Where we start off at the moment is the Blair statement to the NEC in July that this was the most successful centre left government of the last hundred years. From our point of view it does not appear to be particularly centre left or successful. I wonder how you felt about that statement?

WH. It depends on what criteria you use to judge success by. I think it would be unfair to describe the government as unsuccessful. Employment, the build up in public investment, some small measures to promote stakeholding, some movement on worker's rights, a sense that the country is moderately well governed, if your yardstick is mainstream opinion the government can reasonably claim some success. Then the question is whether that is a reasonable yardstick. I think that against what it could have done the government has fallen short. In some areas I'm disappointed. I wonder why it wasn't more ambitious. In area after area I am perplexed . I don't get why they chose to wait two years before there was any build up in public expenditure. They didn't have to spend money on every area on day one, but they should have chosen one area, say Accident & Emergency or primary education and really started spending money on day one.

I still don't get why they want to privatise Air Traffic Control. I don't understand what idea of efficiency, and what compromises on safety which inevitably will follow on the privatisation, are involved. They absolutely don't need the money.

I really dislike the terms of the current debate where someone like myself who argues against the privatisation of Air Traffic Control is seen as an ideologue, while those who argue for privatisation are seen as the mainstream.

I found out when we did the research on the London Underground for Ken Livingstone the way that people who are critical of the Public Private Partnership (PPP) and have good reason to be critical of the PPP are regarded as wild men, while those who are for it are seen as practical, safe pair of hands. I actually think even within Blair and Brown's political geography they are silly to do this, because they are handing Livingstone an issue which he can only win on.

If you argue about this government's centre left credentials, I would say that the Blairite deal is that party members, MPs, junior ministers, some cabinet ministers, are invited to the following proposition. You can do left and centre things as long as they do not frighten the horses. The over reaching frame of policy is neo-conservative, but within that framework you can pursue the goals of improving social justice, promoting equality for all. So you can do lots of micro measures that do not frighten the horses but advance social democratic goals within a broadly conservative penumbra. And that is where the government has been since 1997.

Then you have to say, is that a completely wrong political call? I think it will get them re-elected and I think it is a hell of a long shot better than the Tories. And so I find myself, even though I am a critic, being an ambiguous critic.

TF. Which is where most of us who have stayed with the party now find ourselves. We are unhappy with the way things have gone but we are frightened of the alternative. But that means we are constantly trapped in a situation where the conservative right sets the terms of the debate. On Europe that is very clear.

WH Yes indeed. I think the Conservatives have defined the debate on Criminal Justice, on Education, Means Testing, continuing privatisation in transport, and on asylum seekers until very recently. It was only very recently that Barbara Roche and others have been prepared to push the boat out and challenge that. So in all these territories it is disappointing.

I am the chair of the panel of the 300 committee and William Hague jumped from 258 or something to 50. He was the highest moving person in the entire list in the last twelve months. And the reason was that all the panelists agreed that Hague was setting the political agenda. He was a force in the land. He has been allowed to become a force in the land, because Labour will not make a sustained argument. One of Philip Gould's memos to the PM said that in so many words - we do not hold a position.

TF. Yes. So the underlying question is how can the centre left have influence in a situation where the government isn't listening, and if it is listening then it is listening to conservative forces?

WH. Well I am a great believer in arguing and organising. Friends of mine on the inside say that outsiders do have influence. Blairites do not want critical friends at all. They don't like argument but they listen to it. So I think well presented political argument backed by a few battalions is the way you influence policy making.

TF. Which raises the question, where are the big battalions? The intellectuals have hardly been much in evidence over the last three years.

WH. Here we get into a very complicated argument. We have not so much a market economy as a market society, and live in very much a business civilisation. There is a complete loss of confidence not just by politicians but by the intellectual elite. Firstly, that they could say anything worthwhile and secondly that it would make any difference if they did. I am taken aback by the fact that at fifty years of age I cannot spot anyone who is now doing what I was doing ten years ago. That is partly because the newspapers don't allow them the outlets. The other aspect of our society is its emphasis on the personal, the intimate and the confessional. Big Brother got more votes than the European elections. Intellectuals now get together for therapeutic intellectualism. Its not about political action, it's about self therapy.

TF. That opens up wide questions about the milieu, but then the Labour government operates in that milieu.

WH. Indeed, and you have to say that it is a government of its time. You have to say that if I were leader and you were the chancellor you might find yourself nearer to the position of Blair and Brown than you are willing to accept. They faced a huge centre right consensus which has been difficult to puncture. No battalions on their side. I talked to one of the figures in Number 10 after all the leaks and the petrol strike and after the damaging dips in the polls. And he said, is there enough of a structure to support us on the left? Is there enough of an underpinning - a robust substructure of support? Let aside whether you regard Tony Blair as 20 per cent too far to the right, he is a member of the tribe, he has the right to expect a structure he can stand on. If he were 20 per cent further to the left, would it be a stronger structure?

TF. Obviously they inherited a structure which has been in decline for some considerable time. However the way they have gone about trying to deal with that problem, which is a European problem and one faced by the US Democrat Party, is not to put any resources into that structure when they had resources to do so. The Policy Forum system has not worked, for example.

WH. No, the Policy Forum has not worked. But the reasons are complicated. The Policy Forum could only ever have been expected to do broad directions. Micro-detail is beyond it. I think that from New Labour's point of view the Policy Forum has been quite a good story to tell. It makes their policy processes legitimate, so from their point of view it has not been a complete failure. Again, I think the party has wrung some quite significant concessions out of them for example on pensions.

TF. Yes, indeed one of the interesting things about the last six to eight months has been the resurgence of trade union influence, and the decline of the constituency section which itself has become more and more loyalist. Given that so many traditional members of the Party have left, it raises questions about the future of the party.

WH. Well, one of the features of the situation is that individual members expect a say in party policy, but actually formation of policy in the party by 300,000 members is just impossible. As a Labour Party member you are signing up to a tribal association which is held together by core beliefs and core values. You understand that your membership is going to concretise that and that is why you do it. Particular policies you have very little influence on. It is interesting that Blair makes a big effort to talk about views all the time. He tries to find that correspondence between policy and core Labour values but he doesn't succeed.

TF. No. Then when he tries to bring the Lib Dems into a coalition behind closed doors people just feel betrayed. To say that Blair is part of a tribe is one thing, but Blair has always claimed not to be part of a tribe and he is bitterly critical of tribalism. So he cannot then appeal to tribal loyalties.

WH. I know. Blair is a strange mix. Yet when the going gets rough he doesn't mind relying on the tribe. I was reading his green speech, which is quite a good speech. I read Gordon Brown's speech to the Economics Society, it's level headed centre left stuff in fairness. But then there is an appalling disconnect between where they are at and where the party is at. And it's because of the fear of not wanting to be painted into a corner by the right wing press, it's about trying to build a much more hegemonic political position by forging alliances with the centre. It is being driven by this sense that national governments have less and less power, so you have to make these accommodations to the centre right if you are to build this coalition. But in part they are where they are not just because of circumstances beyond their control but because of deliberate decisions they have made.

TF. Clearly there were alternatives which conceivably could have built a stronger base in the country.

WH. Yes. I take the view that they are wrong on pensions. You could have presented indexing state pensions to earnings as a fair minded thing. Or the reintegration of the rail network. Or spending real money on A&E or primary schools and really make a difference over five years. And they could have gone for a real revival of British Democracy, backing a directly elected House of Lords. Why the Labour Party is championing an appointed House of Lords is unjustifiable. Much of the sense that everything is crabbed and cautious, with the single exception of Gordon Brown's increase in state spending, is because they didn't have the confidence to build support in the country.

TF. Given this, how can we challenge the dominance of right wing values and the growth of mass apathy especially among the young?

WH. Well, the decline of civic virtue, of public purpose, of public man and public woman is happening across the West. It's not just happening in Britain. Its causes are deeply fundamental. It's about television, education, material wealth, a real sense of individualism.

What I think will happen is that things will go wrong. Just imagine the middle east, if the Arabs decide to back the Palestinians and impose an oil embargo on the West. Part of the reason for public apathy is that the external environment is so calm. But America is turning inward, capitalism is getting rawer and harder, inequalities are becoming unacceptable.

For people of our age, in our fifties, buying a house in a comfortable area was a reasonable proposition for a well to do middle class person. You now have a situation where that is impossible financially in many areas because the house prices have begun to reflect colossal inequalities in income. The post war settlement where you could live anywhere in the country is now going under. You cannot live inside the North Circular unless you work for a rich private sector employer. The turnover rates for public sector workers in the Home Counties, police, teachers, social services, health, are very high. Ghettoisation is taking place. The terms of conversation in bars and restaurants will increasingly turn ugly about the operations of contemporary society. Similarly if there are threats from abroad. Then you will get re-politicisation.

Major opinion will tell you that Britain is not badly governed. And it is not badly governed. Unemployment is falling, public expenditure is going up, if you are twenty are you going to vote or are you going to get on with your life? It will only be when the fundamentals go wrong that you will see a re-politicisation.