For better or worse?

The BBC’s latest political drama The Project hit our
screens last week. It revived, once again, a national dialogue
about the kind of government we are living under. Is New Labour a
militant reforming administration or a corrupt sell out? The
seems pretty clear; it is the latter.

But there are other New Labour watchers who take an opposing view.
Earlier this autumn The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee put the
case for New Labour as a radical administration. Citing everything
from the minimum wage to Sure Start, child tax credits to
devolution, Toynbee argued that we are now looking at a modern
social democratic government of impressive credentials.

Interestingly, however, this is not quite what Toynbee argues in
her excellent book, written with David Walker, on Labour’s first
term in office, Did Things Get Better?1 Here,
the authors present a much more complex and ambiguous picture of
New Labour achievement. Impressive tax and benefit measures to help
the working poor have been introduced in the context of a widening
gap between rich and poor. Improvements in basic numeracy and
literacy that benefit all the nation’s children go hand in hand
with an ever more subtle stratification, by social class, of public
service delivery, fuelled by increasing privatisation of health,
education and transport. Put at its crudest, then, New Labour has
succeeded in doing no more than tinker with change on the edges of
a still unequal society.

And no government project is more baffling than the great crusade
to combat social exclusion. No one doubts that the social exclusion
unit, based at the heart of government, has been a highly dedicated
operation from the outset, producing a stream of papers and plans
on everything from truancy to rough sleeping, community
regeneration to teenage pregnancy. Nor does anyone doubt the
sincerity of Blair and Brown in their mission to reduce, if not
wholly eradicate, child poverty.

But what can efforts to combat social exclusion mean in the the
context of, in Toynbee and Walkers’ words, New Labour’s
“affectionate warmth” towards big business and its passion for the
free market? Not much, one might conclude. If so, do many of the
SEU schemes risk becoming little more than caring ways to mitigate
or mop up the poors’ misery or exercise subtle forms of social
control? One of the regular criticisms directed at the SEU has been
its ability to meet liberal concerns about social deprivation and a
right-wing mania to control and monitor the behaviour of the poor,
a nasty habit that even the Tories have now repudiated.

Take the recent identification, referral and tracking initiative.
Millions of pounds from the Children’s Fund are being poured into
the establishment of a data base to identify those at risk of
offending, promote greater co-ordination between appropriate
professionals, and establish a tracking system to keep an eye on
problem children.

The scheme prompts a lot of still unanswered questions. Will
wayward middle class teens undergo the same state scrutiny as young
people from council estates? Shouldn’t we be careful to distinguish
between a child with a problem and a problem child? And more
generally, are national funds that were originally pledged to
promote child welfare now being diverted towards the ever pressing
problem of juvenile crime?

These are important questions to which we need answers. But we seem
not to get much politics from most politicians these days. It’s as
if the Prime Minister has arrogated to himself alone the right to
side-step the nebulous repetitive language of The Project, and talk
about what’s really at stake in any given domestic or foreign
policy. Bully for him, but he ought to spare a thought for some of
his middle ranking and junior ministers who are left to present
their departments’ latest policy wheeze, often with its ever more
complex sources of funding and mish mash of apparently underlying
principles, without the brief or backing to talk about their area
of expertise in simple political terms. The problem with the
Project is not corruption, personal or political. New Labour is
stuffed with good people. What New Labour represents is the
depoliticisation of politics itself that leaves many of us none the
wiser about the true character, meaning or direction of the
government we voted in so enthusiastically all those years ago.

1 Polly Toynbee and David Walker, Did Things
Get Better? An Audit of Labour’s Successes and Failures
Penguin, 2001

Melissa Benn is a journalist and author.

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