It would be too easy to dismiss this election campaign as dull.
Yes, it lacks the obvious clarity and dynamism of 1979 or 1997.
Yes, Iraq hovers over everything and particularly Tony Blair. But
there is an ideological choice at stake in this election, a choice
obscured as so much in politics has been obscured over the past 10
years by New Labour’s mix of social radicalism and social
authoritarianism, capitalist enthusiasms and apparent collectivist
passions, not to mention its disastrous international
At an election meeting recently, one speaker put it this way:”New
Labour has 600 policies but just two strategies. Competition and
co-operation. That can’t work.” There was a sharp intake of breath
from the audience, partly an acknowledgement of the contradiction,
partly an exhausted nod to the sheer industry of this
administration over the past eight years.
Who, bar a few experts and commentators, can keep up with the
enormous number of domestic initiatives unleashed by New Labour,
some sustained, some quietly shelved? To name but a few: all those
tax and benefit reforms that have taken two million children out of
absolute poverty, the Sure Start programme that has now made way
for the planned children’s centres, numerous neighbourhood and
community regeneration schemes, more personalised health and social
care, education, education, education. And there’s more to come.
The Labour manifesto sets out a detailed agenda for the next few
years, in stark comparison to the Conservatives’ thin
But the key question, and the one that many voters are still
puzzling over after two terms in office, is: what does New Labour
really believe in? Competition or co-operation? In 1997, Blair
cleverly offered both visions to the nation: now Blair has lost the
electorate’s trust, Brown is being offered to the public both as a
kind of co-leader and possible successor; the guarantor of Labour’s
more collectivist legacy and socially minded future projects.
This mix and match approach has serious flaws. Funding for
education and health has been impressive but some public service
reforms have created damaging hierarchies of provision. Do we
really want flagship schools and hospitals if it means that other
institutions suffer? Why not offer solid all-round improvement?
Everyone talks admiringly of the subtle redistribution of wealth
that has taken place under New Labour but why should such economic
policies be hidden beneath the carpet of reforms that please the
tabloid press? And despite these shifts, economic experts agree
that the government has still only succeeded in “merely halting”
the effects of growing income inequality.
The overall feeling is one of missed opportunities and mixed
messages. The Liberal Democrats have succeeded with a simple
radical message and a few costed proposals funded by higher taxes
for top earners: free care for older people, an end to student
tuition fees, smaller class sizes, replacement of the council tax
with a fairer local income tax, scrapping the ID card to put more
police on the street.
Blair apparently likes to assert, in private, that the Liberal
Democrats are “part of the social democratic family”. Yes, but is
Competition with the Tories over the issue of choice has made it
vulnerable to bolder rightist plans, such as topping up private
spending on private education and health with public money through
schemes such as its patient passports. Government heavy-handedness
on asylum and immigration has also weakened its response to the
depressing Tory election campaign.
The Conservative party has shown no real grasp of, nor sympathy
with, the social problems in the UK. For those interested in social
justice, then, it seems a choice between a government offering
misguided glitz atop a set of solid slow moving reforms or a more
radical, but perhaps more simplistic and certainly untested
There’s a chance that the Liberal Democrat campaign will have a
beneficial effect on weary ministers. Should New Labour win a third
term, it may yet borrow some of that social democratic simplicity
and boldness or give more consideration to its own political roots.
Does anyone remember the Labour Party, once a progressive party
with historic links to trade unionism and to many important social
movements? Who knows, a renewed New Labour, whoever its leader, may
yet make radical history as so many of us hoped it would back in
Melissa Benn is a journalist