With Blair, a New Life for Labor


Upholding a universal truth of politics, there was more action inside the bar than in the main hall for most of the day at this month’s Labor Party annual conference in Scotland.

The drink was Calder’s Dark and Smooth, Tetley Bitter and Guinness in deep dark pints as thick and opaque as the rainswept sky. And the talk was Tony Blair, the 43-year-old lawyer who has led England’s Labor Party back from the edge of irrelevance to the brink of power in the British parliamentary elections, now accelerating into their final stage.

To Harry Cairney, a 26-year party member who works for a small mining company, Blair has breathed life into a party that has not held the prime minister’s office since 1979. “He’s been a true leader,” says Cairney passionately. “He’s driven policy forward. We would have been left in the wilderness without the changes Tony has advocated.”


Hugh Scullion shares Cairney’s admiration for Blair’s political skills. But, as president of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Workers Union in Scotland, he worries that Blair has abandoned too much of the left-wing heritage of the party, which for most of its 91-year history formally committed itself to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” “I still don’t know where his policies are leading,” says Scullion, less angry than mystified. “It’s not the Labor Party I joined.”

The debate inside the Labor Party here is one that Bill Clinton would find very familiar. Indeed, Blair’s effort to construct what he invariably calls “New Labor” is unsettling British politics in almost exactly the same way that Clinton’s struggle to define a “New Democrat” agenda has shaken the ideological and political alignment in America.

“We are trying to preserve the best of those ideals that created the New Deal [and] the British welfare state,” Blair says in an interview on his flight back from Inverness to London. “We are trying to preserve them in circumstances where people have realized there are all sorts of problems with old-style collectivism--where the state does everything and you have big institutions. People want to preserve the values, but translate that into a more individualistic world today.”

Though Blair’s Labor Party begins with an ideological tradition well to the left of Clinton’s Democrats--the two men are now moving in parallel directions. Each is trying to devise a new definition of left-of-center politics that embraces the global economy and looks for government to provide security less through centralized programs than with “tools” that “enable” people “to make the most of their own lives,” as Clinton often says.

After two decades dominated by conservatives in both countries, this new synthesis has already demonstrated that it can win elections in the United States. It may be about to do the same here; recent surveys show Labor with leads of as much as 25 percentage points over the Conservative Party of Prime Minister John Major. Despite a good economy, Major has been buffeted by scandals in his government, open infighting and a sense the Tories have run out of energy after nearly two decades in power.

Major Sets Election Date

On Monday, Major set a May 1 date for the election and immediately launched his reelection campaign. But unless he can execute an unprecedented comeback--no government this far behind in the polls so close to an election has ever survived--Labor is on track to win a clear majority in the House of Commons and make Blair the first Labor prime minister since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher began the Tory reign.


But, if this new centrist agenda has proven it can attract votes, it remains to be demonstrated that it can produce measurable progress on the problems concerning average families--like education, slowly rising incomes and the sense of moral breakdown. In both countries, alienated liberals argue that Blair and Clinton, by accepting conservative limits on public spending, have denied themselves the means to make a material differences in the lives of their core supporters.

Though his platform won overwhelming approval from the party as a whole in a special referendum, a substantial core of left-leaning critics view Blair’s campaign agenda--centered on promises to reduce class sizes in elementary schools, put 250,000 welfare recipients to work, speed prosecution of juvenile criminals, institute a minimum wage and cut waiting lines at the National Health Service--as little more than tokenism. The Labor leader, they say, is an opportunist, shedding positions to gain votes.

“[Blair] speaks to the angst of the age while being powerless to do much about it,” wrote Martin Jacques, one of Britain’s leading leftist commentators, in pointed analysis last fall. A conference of left-of-center activists in London organized by the Guardian newspaper in early March rang with criticism of Blair: “I think New Labor,” said one man, “is in some sense Mrs. Thatcher’s greatest triumph.”

Blair and his supporters counter that Labor’s traditional remedies of higher taxes, heavy spending and increased public ownership are not only unpopular but ineffective in the modern economy. “The most difficult change has been to persuade people that this [reform] is not just electorally necessary, but . . . the correct thing to do,” he says. “In other words, even if we could win an election as old Labor, we shouldn’t do it.”

Conservatives, meanwhile, see the old wallpaper peeking from under the new paint. With the election approaching, the Tories now relentlessly argue that Blair’s blueprint, though more moderate than earlier Labor incarnations, would still dangerously expand the state, reverse the economic gains the country has experienced under their long drive to deregulate, denationalize and reduce income tax rates.

Citing a British unemployment rate little more than half of France’s and Germany’s, Major says Blair’s agenda would import to England the high-tax, heavy-regulation policies “that have created unemployment across Europe.”


In both the U.S. and Britain, the outcome of these roiling debates within and between the parties is likely to determine the face of liberal politics for the new century. If Clinton and Blair--assuming his lead holds up--can successfully manage their economies and hold down taxes and spending while delivering tangible benefits in education to their traditional supporters in the middle class and below, they may lastingly reshape their countries’ political landscapes.

But if this reform agenda does not deliver material progress for workers feeling pressed by global competition--or precipitates an open split with coalition partners committed to a more traditional expansion of government--their parallel efforts to construct an enduring political majority for the “radical center” could prove stillborn.


Most comparisons of Clinton and Blair have focused less on their ideologies than on their superficial similarities. Though Blair has avoided Clinton’s penchant for personal and political scandal, they cut similar profiles in other ways. Both are lawyers married to lawyers (early in their marriage, Blair’s wife, Cherie Booth, was often considered the brighter political prospect), and both emerged as party leaders while they were still young enough to look plausible wearing blue jeans.

Blair rose rapidly through the system after winning election to parliament from a blue-collar district in the north England town of Sedgefield in 1983. He made a national name for himself in the early 1990s, as the Labor Party’s point man on social issues, when he memorably pledged that his party “would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”--a cutting soundbite that encapsulated his determination to neutralize traditional party weaknesses such as the perception that it was soft on criminals.

Of average build and somewhat reserved, with a gaze that seems to entreat more than demand, Blair is not as imposing a physical presence as Clinton; he does not so much fill a room as infiltrate it. His campaign speeches are typically conversational in tone and temperate in emotion. Yet he has proven a surprisingly steely leader: His internal detractors used to call him Bambi, but he has seized control of the party so forcefully that some of those same critics now only half jokingly call him Stalin.

Blair and Clinton can sound so much alike--in emphasizing education and training as the key to fighting inequality and talking about the need to balance opportunity and responsibility--that critics here sometimes deride Blair as a “Clinton clone.”


The two sides, in fact, regularly cross-fertilize. Blair has visited Clinton and sat down with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council on trips to the United States.

Political strategists from both camps, including former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos and Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, have debriefed each other. “Just as we studied the Tory assaults on Labor in 1992,” says Stephanopoulos, “they have now studied the various Republican assaults on Clinton.”

The speechwriters also appear to be aware of each other’s work: Some of Clinton’s signature soundbites--”people who work hard and play by the rules” and “governments don’t raise children, families do”--have migrated into Blair speeches.

But the idea that Blair is merely copying Clinton--advanced most recently in a dismissive “60 Minutes” profile--seems wildly overdrawn.

For one thing, the echoes have moved both ways across the Atlantic. Blair declared that “the era of big centralized government is over” two months before Clinton offered a virtually identical epitaph in his 1996 State of the Union speech.

For another, Blair has pointed Clinton themes in new directions--crafting, for instance, a broader definition of community that reflects his party’s more egalitarian history. Finally, while he praises Clinton, Blair personally seems more closely focused on the evolution of thinking in left-of-center European parties than the latest twists in Democratic dogma.


In the interview, Blair dismissed the notion that he was cribbing from Clinton, or vice versa. Instead, he portrays both as participants in a parallel effort by left-of-center parties throughout the industrial world to restore their relevance in an era of global competition and rising public skepticism about taxes and traditional government solutions.

“Right across the world, there is a different center and center-left agenda being forged,” Blair says.

Regardless of the extent to which they have inspired each other, Clinton and Blair seem the product of virtually identical political processes. Each emerged only as his party came out of an extended period of exile, frustration and introspection that opened it to long-resisted heresies.

“With every election defeat, the willingness of the party to change increased enormously,” says Patricia Hewitt, a Labor parliamentary candidate who served as chief policy adviser to party leader Neil Kinnock during the 1980s.

Like the Democrats, who held the White House for just four of 24 years before Clinton’s first election, Labor has held the prime minister’s office for only six of the 26 years since 1970. Since 1979 Labor hasn’t held power at all, losing an unprecedented four consecutive general elections. And under the parliamentary system, which fuses legislative and executive power, Labor has been entirely powerless throughout this period--unlike the Democrats, who at least held the House of Representatives through their darkest days.

If anything, Labor drifted even further from the mainstream of voters than the Democrats did at their lowest points, such as George S. McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. After Thatcher’s victory in 1979, Labor turned sharply to the left, driven by activists convinced it had lost because it had made too many compromises.


“It was as if a whole tribe of McGoverns had occupied the party,” says Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University.

Under Foot, a Party Collapse

In 1983, under the leadership of a genial but chaotic leftist named Michael Foot, the party ran on an extraordinary platform that included unilateral nuclear disarmament, more national ownership of key industries and withdrawal from the European Community. One anguished Labor MP famously dubbed it “the longest suicide note ever written.” The party collapsed to just 28% of the popular vote, and the Tories amassed the largest majority in the House of Commons in 40 years.

After that drubbing, the party ousted Foot in favor of Kinnock, a rough-and-ready Welshman who had risen through the party’s left but was sufficiently sentient to recognize when he had hit a brick wall. Through the 1987 and 1992 elections, Kinnock steered the party away from unilateral disarmament, softened its enthusiasm for nationalization and began reforming the party’s internal rules to loosen the grip of unions and hard-core activists who pushed it leftward. Those changes eased Blair’s later reforms.

But Kinnock continued to advocate higher taxes to pay for increased social benefits--and the Tories mercilessly hammered him with that club to turn back Labor in both those elections. For Labor, the defeat in 1992 was particularly traumatic, since they were vanquished not by Thatcher but John Major, a much-less-powerful presence who had succeeded her as the Tory leader.

“It shook the Labor Party to its very foundation,” says David Blunkett, a leading Labor MP who was born blind. “It was almost as if we’d blinded ourselves--if I can use that expression--to the fact that we were not in tune with the people.”

Party’s Internal Reforms Continue

After Kinnock resigned, the party caught its breath with John Smith, a respected party veteran from Scotland. Smith continued the internal reforms that Kinnock had initiated to dilute the power of the unions and activists, but he hesitated on further rethinking of the party’s policies. When he suddenly died from a heart attack in May 1994, Blair seized the leadership with a lightning campaign calling for reform--and hasn’t stopped pushing since.


Most dramatically, Blair won a special party vote in 1995 to eliminate “Clause IV” of the party’s constitution--the provision committing it to “common ownership” of production. Previous Labor governments had not been precisely governed by that injunction, but it retained enormous symbolic power to activists as the heart of the party’s historic commitment to socialism--a commitment Blair considered both outdated and an electoral albatross.

With Clause IV swept away, Blair called for Labor to build its coalition around shared values, not class--an extraordinary statement for the leader of a party explicitly founded as the political voice of the working class. And, like Clinton, he called for his party to “move beyond the sterile divisions” of conventional liberal approaches and conservative calls for less government.

Clinton and Blair are building their parties’ new agendas on the same two cornerstones: an effort to condition opportunity on responsibility, and an insistence that government activism on issues such as education and training can coexist with fiscal conservatism and a resistance to new taxes.

Just as Clinton has promised to balance the budget and cut taxes, Blair has pledged to live with the Major government’s spending targets for the next two years and not to raise income tax rates for the next five. “It’s not radical to be fiscally loose,” Blair argues, “it’s just incompetent.”

On other social questions, Blair and Clinton often diverge in their specific policies. Generally, Blair accepts a less-coercive definition of personal responsibility and a larger role for government--not surprisingly in a country that has had a state-run national health system for almost 50 years and devotes nearly 42% of its economy to government spending, compared with about 33% in the United States.

Blair’s welfare reform plan, for example, would demand that recipients accept work or enter training--recipients themselves could decide which--to continue receiving benefits. An absolute time limit on aid, like the one Clinton signed into law last summer, remains beyond the pale for both parties here.


But the shared priorities are probably more revealing: Both talk about expanding access to preschool learning; targeting more resources on children in the earliest grades of elementary school; providing workers with more aid to purchase training; cracking down on crime through tougher sentencing for juvenile offenders (like Clinton, Labor’s top spokesman on crime is urging curfews and a drive against truancy); devolving power from the central government, and rejecting protectionism (Blair has steered the party toward a cautiously pro-integration position on economic relations with Europe.)

The two men have converged in a more fundamental way. Thematically, Blair sounds much like Clinton in 1992, with ringing declarations about “reinventing” government and enlarging opportunity. Programmatically, he has much more in common with the Clinton of 1996, who partitioned his vast ambitions into bite-sized programs modest in both risk and reward.

Caution Instead of Bold Action

If Blair wins, the real danger may not be that he suddenly abandons his promises of centrist reform--as some Tories suspect--but that he finds them insufficient to produce the level of change he has promised. On such issues as the challenge of funding decent retirements without busting the budget, he has so far, like Clinton, valued caution over bold action.

Blair understands those criticisms. But he urges patience. With one eye on Clinton’s chaotic first months in office, he says the party must proceed “responsibly, with step-by-step reform,” to regain public trust after 18 years in the wilderness. Given that the British system typically has imposed more party discipline on members of Parliament than members of Congress feel, Blair is cautiously optimistic he can bring his party along his new path. In the end, he insists--in tones more like Stalin than Bambi--that no one who has watched him reconstruct the Labor Party should question how “radical” he will be in reforming education, welfare and health care.

“The one thing I am absolutely determined to do is deliver the new Labor vision,” Blair says as his plane from Scotland approaches London. “I mean, there will be no backsliding and no return to the past.”