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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.