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Tony Blair and the Labour Party

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Where does the Labour party go from here? At his meeting with Labour MPs on Monday the prime minister made two main points. One was that members should trust him and leave the timetable of his departure to him. The other was to claim that Labour would not get a fourth term unless it stuck to his strategy. Yet all the evidence over the last year suggests the opposite: that we will not win a fourth term if we stick to his strategy.

The loss of 4m votes since 1997 and of half the party's membership, and now the loss of 320 council seats, does not suggest underlying popular support. Understandably, several colleagues at the parliamentary Labour party meeting called for unity, but that can only be achieved around a framework of policies that command broad support both within the party and among the public. A change of leadership is clearly necessary; however, unity will not be achieved simply by a transfer of leadership that continues the existing policies, which have brought us to this point, but by a renewal of the party around a new and different approach.

So what is wrong with British politics today? The single biggest problem is the lack of accountability of power. It underlies every issue where the party and the public disapproves of government policy but cannot change it. There is little point in lobbying parliament or taking to the streets in protest at war in Iraq or Iran, or the replacement of Trident or a new round of nuclear power stations, or the marketisation of public services, if the government (for which often read the prime minister) has already made up its (his) mind, and can't be held to account. The checks and balances have all but disappeared.

What is needed is a new framework of power that restores the authority of the House of Commons, secures effective ministerial control of the civil service and moves to a more constitutional type of premiership. Parliament, through strengthened select committees, chosen by a secret vote of the whole house in accordance with party numbers and not by the whips, should have statutory power to ratify cabinet appointments, summon ministers and require disclosure of all relevant documents, to appoint external committees of inquiry where the government may be reluctant to do so, and to table its own motions for debate on the floor of the house at least once a month, with a vote at the conclusion. The honours system, which is corrupted by patronage, should be sharply curtailed and overseen by parliament, or preferably abolished.

If parliament were empowered to respond effectively to public and party opinion, a wholly different agenda would become possible. Inequality is now more extreme even than under Thatcher. It is true that child poverty has been reduced, pensioner allowances extended and tax credits increased. But the government's own figures show 11.4 million people, a fifth of the population, still living in poverty, while last year the average FTSE 100 chief executive earned £32,263 a week - 408 times the state pension and 185 times the minimum wage. This is utterly unacceptable: wealth is not generated by the rich but by teamwork, and pay should reflect that, but the capitalist market does not. Two reforms are urgently needed: the bonuses, so-called "fringe benefits" and stock options enjoyed by the rich should be costed and taxed at the marginal rate, which should be 50% in excess of £100,000; and the minimum wage, now £5.05 an hour, should be raised over a five-year period to the Council of Europe decency threshold (now £7.40 an hour), which would take 6.5 million people out of poverty.

A reinvigorated parliament is also needed as a bulwark for the defence of civil liberties. We are now seeing the rebalancing of power towards the state, with restrictions on jury trials, cuts in legal aid, a national database of all individuals registered via ID cards, limits on the right to protest, the use of control orders for detention without charge or trial, and even the use of the Terrorism Act to frogmarch a pensioner off the premises. Without risking genuine national security, which must remain paramount, many elements of this illiberal legislation can and should be reversed, and parliament should take the lead.

The obsessive introduction of the private-market model into every area of public services - the NHS, education, housing, pensions, probation and local-authority "strategic development partnerships" - has neither party nor public support, nor the evidence base to justify it. What is needed instead is a genuine public-service model - identifying failings in delivery of the service and vigorously remedying them, but retaining the structure and concept of a public service that uniquely expresses an equal citizenship and nationhood for all.

New measures are needed to restore equity and justice as a balance against the overriding drive for economic efficiency. As Sweden has shown, a more socially integrated society is also more economically dynamic. Social mobility, which all support, is highest in countries with much more equal distribution of income and wealth. A fixation on economic dominance within the Lisbon EU agenda has led to the downplaying of environmental goals against unfettered expansion of car and plane travel, weaker targeting of industrial emissions, and slower development of renewables and energy conservation. Equally, industrial rights in the workplace are kept suppressed in cases of unfair dismissal, reinstatement, corporate manslaughter and union recognition.

Lastly a new start is needed in our relations with the US, especially under the Bush administration. There are two arguments for the present policy of continuing to hug the US close. One is that this is the best way to influence events. But as we found out, painfully, over the Iraq war, there was no reciprocity, even in the award of contracts afterwards. The other is that we are so dependent on the US for our strategic defence capability that we have no alternative but to stay close. But politically that dependence means for ever relegating ourselves to a role of mere accessory to America's military goals, serving under its command and fostering a unilateral US hegemony, when the aim of British foreign policy should be a stronger role for the UN in support of multilateralism and the rule of international law.


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