Wednesday, September 28, 2005

New Labour: the change-makers!?

The on-going annual Labour conference in Brighton is, if you count the number of exhibitions in the conference center, the biggest political conference in Europe this year. And if you consider Labour’s role for the future of center-left policies, it is by far the most important. Yet the reporting in Swedish media is very limited, today our biggest newspaper Aftonbladet only has a very short notice with the headline “Cherie Blair: My Tony won’t quit”. Naturally, the question when Blair will step down, and thus when Gordon Brown will become party leader and Prime Minister, is “the elephant in the conference room”, as someone put it. But there are so many more things to be said about the conference, and after reading Blair’s fantastic speech, Brown’s not-as-fantastic-but-very good speech, a few articles, the conference blog and the Billy Bragg-podcast, and some critical comments (Will Hutton, Neal Lawson) as well, the following points must be made.

1. Tony Blair is the best public speaker in the world today and his record as leader of the Labour party cannot be questioned. A leading politician that speaks so wisely of globalization at length (even mentioning the iPod!) is unfortunately a rare sight:
“I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalization. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”.
And many of his policies are firm: the developing countries must be able to trade with the rich world, the struggle for global justice must continue. You can question Blair on many grounds, but he is a politician who takes decisions, he does not pretend that the Berlin Wall is still alive and kicking, and he is a fantastic speaker.

2. To invade Iraq with W. was wrong, but don’t forget the context. The disastrous invasion of the Suez canal in 1956 had important implications for Europe’s foreign policy: Loser number one (Britain) realized that it was no longer a leading global power, and the goal for Britain’s foreign policy became “to be the glorious second [to the US]”. Loser number two (France) realized as well that it was no longer a leading global power, and the goal for France’s foreign policy became “to be the first among equals [in the emerging European Union]”. There is no surprise that Blair has not ditched this axis of British Foreign policy, and indeed he confirmed it in his speech:
”Britain should also remain the strongest ally of the United States. I know there's a bit of us that would like me to do a Hugh Grant in Love Actually and tell America where to get off. But the difference between a good film and real life is that in real life there's the next day, the next year, the next lifetime to contemplate the ruinous consequences of easy applause.”
Even if Iraq is a mess in a number of ways, I was there myself in July this year, the US and Britain cannot just leave now, and the handover of responsibilities to the Iraqi people will hopefully work as good as possible. To invade was wrong, but Britain cannot just leave now, and hopefully life in Iraq will get better soon.

3. Gordon Brown will become the next leader, but when? For my own personal good, I will not spend too many hours speculating about this. But one thing seems clear; after this conference nobody doubts that it will be Gordon Brown who takes over after Blair. After reading one of the biographies out there about Brown I think he is honest to his own beliefs when he concluded his speech by saying:
Our mission: New Labour renewed.
Our values: Fairness for all, responsibility for all.
These are the very code-words of the Clinton renewal of the Democratic party, and between Brown and Blair the former was at least as committed to the New Labour-project, and Brown is also the one spending his vacations in the US with New Dem policy wonks. Having said that, Brown’s idea of moral values, something he has in his spine given his Christian upbringing, is everywhere in his speech (that was even called “Politics as a moral duty”). Brown will continue on the Blair-path whenever and wherever Blair will step down, but hopefully he will bring his moral compass from his early years in Kirkcaldy with him.

4. New Labour continues to be inspiring, but must continue to deliver. I admire Britain’s and Labour’s way of working with new policy ideas, think tanks, etc. I like the renewal of the British welfare state; many policy ideas are excellent, the British welfare state must be renewed but I need to read up more on the blurring of the line between the private and public sector before giving a final opinion. In general I think that competition and alternatives have a place in the public sector, but not everywhere and I think each step must be evaluated carefully. But in any way, Blair can put words on a vision:
"Today is not the era of the big state; but a strategic one: empowering, enabling, putting decision making in the hands of people not government. One day when I am asked by someone whose neighbourhood is plagued with anti-social behaviour; or whose local school is failing or hospital is poor, “what are you going to do about it?”, I want to be able to reply: “We have given you the resources. We have given you the powers. Now tell me what you are going to do about it.”
So, continue to come up with new ideas and visions, New Labour. But remember to deliver, redistribute to the poor, and constantly evaluate the modernization of the British society according to our common social democratic values.

5. We like you, so learn from us as well! By now it should be pretty obvious that I try to follow British politics quite closely. But there are also many areas where Labour and Britain can do better and learn from other parties and countries: I would like to see more women in the top-leadership of the Labour party, a closer, matured, post-1970s cooperation with the trade unions, more focus on sustainable development but also integration, and a more humble attitude vis-à-vis the things that should have been done in a different way during the time leading up to the war in Iraq. Conclusion: let’s combine the policy-driven agenda for renewal, jobs and growth in Britain with the fairness, equality and redistribution of the Swedish model. And let’s not forget about Africa and the developing world when we do it - and when we do it – let’s continue to improve peoples’ lives and let’s continue to kick some good old Tory ass.

6 Comments:

Blogger Anna, Fair and True said...

Excellent column, as usual! I agree with 4) and 5) especially.

Dagens Industri ran an article, albeit short, in today's edition, but otherwise you're right, the reporting is very limited.

28/9/05 20:21  
Blogger Rémi Bazillier said...

Hum.. a lot of things to say.. as you can imagine, i dont agree on a lot of things.. Well, on the first point, on the second we can discuss. I agree on the analysis of the vision of France and Great Britain after Suez.. But on the social model, i strongly believe in another model.. Maybe a positive alliance between the Nordic / social-democratic model and the European socialism, defined by a strong play of the States to ensure redistribution and a new Development model.

28/9/05 23:47  
Anonymous Matthew McGregor said...

Eric - I followed some links through to your blog and it is very interesting.

As an union activist in the Labour party, it is interesting to see your analysis of our conference. I totally agree that Tony Blair is a great public speaker, his speaking skills are breathtaking sometimes, especially when you are in the hall to hear it in person as I have been many times.

I think one thing that will not come across in your papers is the extent to which the (Blair-led) party leadership has (a) totally lost the backing of the trade unions and (b) is losing the support of the local party delegates.

The trade unions have inflicted two big defeats on the leadership at the conference. First, on the right to take comprehensive industrial action (UK law in breach of international law in terms of stopping unions from taking most actions that unions in the rest of Europe are allowed). And second on a motion which agued for the protection of the NHS by keeping out privatisation. 99.6% of the union delegates voted for the union law motion, and 99.9% voted for the anti-privatisation motion. But most interestingly, among party members, 40% rebelled on the union motion and 43% rebelled on the anti-privatisation. These figures are MUCH bigger than the numbers of party delegates who voted against the leadership in past years and show that party delegates are less keen on Blairite policies.

Almost all union members and most party activists want to see Blair stand down for Brown. Brown is a social democrat and many feel that Blair is not. Also, Blair is a big problem in elections - he is the number one reason we lost many seats at the May election. The spin right now is that Brown will continue as New Labour. That is not right: he will not lurch to the left, but he will decrease the privatisations, he will work more closely with the unions, and he will look to the nordic model instead of working towards more EU integration.

Just some thoughts, and great blog!

29/9/05 15:45  
Anonymous Matthew McGregor said...

Eric - I followed some links through to your blog and it is very interesting.

As an union activist in the Labour party, it is interesting to see your analysis of our conference. I totally agree that Tony Blair is a great public speaker, his speaking skills are breathtaking sometimes, especially when you are in the hall to hear it in person as I have been many times.

I think one thing that will not come across in your papers is the extent to which the (Blair-led) party leadership has (a) totally lost the backing of the trade unions and (b) is losing the support of the local party delegates.

The trade unions have inflicted two big defeats on the leadership at the conference. First, on the right to take comprehensive industrial action (UK law in breach of international law in terms of stopping unions from taking most actions that unions in the rest of Europe are allowed). And second on a motion which agued for the protection of the NHS by keeping out privatisation. 99.6% of the union delegates voted for the union law motion, and 99.9% voted for the anti-privatisation motion. But most interestingly, among party members, 40% rebelled on the union motion and 43% rebelled on the anti-privatisation. These figures are MUCH bigger than the numbers of party delegates who voted against the leadership in past years and show that party delegates are less keen on Blairite policies.

Almost all union members and most party activists want to see Blair stand down for Brown. Brown is a social democrat and many feel that Blair is not. Also, Blair is a big problem in elections - he is the number one reason we lost many seats at the May election. The spin right now is that Brown will continue as New Labour. That is not right: he will not lurch to the left, but he will decrease the privatisations, he will work more closely with the unions, and he will look to the nordic model instead of working towards more EU integration.

Just some thoughts, and great blog!

29/9/05 15:45  
Blogger Anna, Fair and True said...

Very interesting to read Matthew's take on it!

29/9/05 17:41  
Anonymous Ian B. said...

Eric, great comments on the Labour conference. In an similar vein, you may want to check out what Alastair Campbell wrote in the Guardian. http://politics.guardian.co.uk/labour2005/comment/0,16394,1581664,00.html
It's quite interesting regarding Tony B.

Hope all is well with you!

30/9/05 08:51  

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