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New Labour and Egalitarianism

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Anthony Giddens is a Labour peer; his new book, Over to You, Mr Brown: How Labour Can Win Again, will be published by Polity Press on March 28. It has been suggested that Giddens is the brains behind Blair's Third Way:


Anthony Giddens

Thursday March 15, 2007

The Guardian

Everyone I talk to in the Labour party seems pessimistic about the future. The Tories are well ahead in the polls. David Cameron's popularity ratings overshadow those of the man who will almost certainly be the next Labour leader, Gordon Brown. "You were the future once," Cameron said in pointed rejoinder to Tony Blair a few months ago, but the remark could just as well apply to Brown, who after all is older than Blair.

The interregnum between Blair and Brown is causing all sorts of troubles. Blair's authority, inside and outside the party, has declined. Cameron has walked almost unopposed into the gap that has been left. The cash for peerages affair is dragging on. Iraq is a bigger mess than even the critics of the war feared at the outset. Many voters might just feel it's time to let the Conservatives have a go, especially since they have moved so far over towards Labour's position anyway.

And yet ... we could have a completely different take on the situation. Look what happened in Australia. The prime minister, John Howard, is ageing, and he does not exactly exude charisma. His time in office was beset with troubles. In the last election, he was faced by an exuberant young challenger, Mark Latham (of the Australian Labor party), who initially made all the running. Yet Howard came out ahead come election time. Voters went for experience over youth, and if Brown becomes Labour leader and prime minister, the same could happen here.

What should Brown do to maximise the chances of Labour achieving a fourth term? New ideas are essential if Labour is effectively to counter the Conservative challenge and, even more important, rekindle enthusiasm among the electorate. Labour has to reinvent itself almost as thoroughly as happened in 1997.

I propose Labour should develop a Contract With the Future. What I mean by the phrase is that Labour should offer a contract to citizens to initiate a future for the country, and as far as possible the wider world, that is socially just, as well as economically and ecologically sustainable - where we do not, in effect, exploit our children.

It must involve a number of key points. Labour should more openly rejoin the social democratic tradition. It has thus far kept its egalitarianism mostly under wraps. Why? There is no need to be coy about the need to reduce inequality. Britain is too unequal a society to compete effectively in the world marketplace. I advocate a "new egalitarianism", that is the very condition of longer-term economic growth. Policy innovation, not tax rises, should drive this programme.

Major changes will have to be made in the structure of taxation to thread a concern with green issues through the whole of government fiscal policy. Brown must become green - and of course he has just delivered a major speech on the subject. There should be no increase in overall taxation levels. The "no" to tax rises will have to be a big no, since the Tories will paint Brown as a tax-and-spend traditionalist.

Blairite policies in health and education should be radicalised and generalised rather than rolled back. The welfare state has been largely a middle-class monopoly. We must empower poorer groups by giving them real voice and choice. Decentralisation and devolution - not themes Brown has been conspicuously associated with - should be the order of the day. Cities and regions need effective leadership in a world where global changes often impact upon them directly, rather than at the national level.

We are living through a period of the end of the welfare state, and further welfare reform is imperative. I do not mean this in the rightwing sense that welfare systems are a brake on growth. The opposite is true. The welfare state has to become a social investment state, much more than only a safety net. For instance, investment in skills is vital for tackling poverty and for economic competitiveness. We need a more preventative and activist welfare system.

Labour should put an arm-lock on the new and very extensive "wellbeing" agenda. Mental illness seems on the rise; it is responsible for more work days lost than unemployment. Most chronic illnesses today are lifestyle related. Coping with them demands lifestyle change - the adoption of healthier everyday habits. Lifestyle change is also the key to dealing with global warming.

Brown should adopt a more positive attitude towards the EU. Many of the most significant problems we face as a society today can only be dealt with in the context of the EU - climate change, energy security, transnational crime, migration, the Middle East, and other issues. A new generation of European leaders is emerging, and Brown should seize the chance to be one of them.

Foreign policy, above all the tragedy in Iraq, has done more than anything else to undermine Labour's credibility. Brown must oversee the process of pulling the troops out of the country, a process that has already started. He has to put a distance between Britain and the current US administration without sacrificing Atlanticism altogether. Even more important, he has to think through the implications of living in a world where the influence of, and respect for, American power has shrunk.

I don't mean to underestimate the problems a Brown-led government will confront. One can see several areas of tension and difficulty. Although there will probably be some sort of leadership contest, Brown will come in as an unelected prime minister. Over 70% of voters think he should speedily call a general election. There is virtually no chance he will do so, but such a situation could drain his legitimacy. There could be problems maintaining order within the party. Brown will have to face down the old left and deal with potentially fractious trade unions, just as Blair did. If he concedes too much to the traditionalists, he could perhaps keep the party happy, but his tenure as prime minister will be short.

We don't know how capable a leader Brown will be in dealing with such issues, but he might turn out a very good one. The Tories have made a serious mistake in deciding to depend upon spin rather than concrete policy-making in their appeal to the public. In his first year as prime minister, Brown should develop and put into practice a policy-rich agenda, in effect squeezing the Conservatives out once they formulate their own policies - if indeed they are able to do so. The next election might well be a close-run thing, but Labour can win again, have no doubt of it.

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A selection of responses to Anthony Giddens' article:

(1) Professor Sally Tomlinson, Department of education, University of Oxford

I always enjoy reading Anthony Giddens' books, but the extract from his latest book giving advice to Gordon Brown left me somewhat confused (Labour doesn't need to be coy about its egalitarianism, March 15). In a 2002 Fabian Society publication he said that social democrats must emphasise freedom of choice and equality of opportunity, by which he meant markets and meritocracy, rather than state provision and egalitarianism.

He was also rather rude about those who thought that universal, decent, well-resourced state provision locally provided might help make us a more egalitarian society. Now he is advocating a "new egalitarianism" to reduce inequality. This seems to be a mixture of more markets and more local provision via "decentralisation and devolution". Well, the evidence we have seems to suggest that poorer groups, like the non-poor, want decent, well-resourced local schools and hospitals, and guaranteed help if unemployed, ill or old. Something like less market choice with more local democracy? He is nearly there.

(2) Dr Mike Sheaff, School of law and social science, University of Plymouth

Anthony Giddens' promise of a "radical, policy-rich agenda" fails utterly when he comes to suggest responses to rising levels of chronic illness. In urging "the adoption of healthier everyday habits" Giddens makes an obvious point, but with no mention of the social obstacles to its achievement. He could, for instance, have acknowledged research that points to the negative health consequences of low job control, redundancy and privatisation. These require far more than appeals to individual lifestyle changes.

Isolating everyday behaviour from its context provides no basis for a progressive policy. It is radicalism of a kind; but the tradition on which it draws is that of Samuel Smiles, the one-time supporter of Chartism who ended up promulgating a banal plea for "self-help". Led in this direction by defeats of radical movements in the 1840s, Smiles nevertheless rightly reminds us of the importance of individuality. Giddens picks up this theme,but, with Smiles, reveals a narrowing of social vision that is indispensable for a genuinely radical analysis.

(3) Michael Somerton, Hull

Anthony Giddens is right to state the need to reduce inequality. Of course, inequality has a range of manifestations. As well as widespread differences in income and wealth, differential access to higher education, health services and the political process are all important examples of inequality. As he says: "The welfare state has been largely a middle-class monopoly." He may be right or wrong to argue for no increase in overall taxation levels. However, it seems that for some groups at least - the higher-paid and wealthy - there will need to be an increase in the tax burden, in order to achieve the desired redistribution of income to reduce inequality.

(4) Patrick Curry, London

Anthony Giddens' apologia for New Labour skates over the fact that it is a Labour prime minister who has: pushed privatisation further than even the Conservatives dared; started a bloody war abroad under false pretences; increased the gap between the rich and poor at home, and never missed an opportunity to protect the former over the latter; wasted years prevaricating over the environment; and made repeated assaults on our civil liberties. And there is no evidence that Gordon Brown - who has also loyally supported this same programme - will be any better. How much longer can the fear of still worse under any other party be so cynically exploited?

It is absolutely vital for the future health of the Labour party and thus of the democratic left that it should be punished for its morally bankrupt support for Tony Blair and all the accompanying ideological poison of New Labourism. It must be made to think twice before leading us up the garden path again. In short, for its own sake and ours, Labour must lose the next election.

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