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.