What French left can learn from New Labour edit

Nov. 9, 2006

Tony Blair is tottering. He will quit inside a year at the very outside. The government he leads is currently some way behind the Conservative opposition in the polls. In these circumstances, what could the French left possibly learn from the policies of Labour in the UK? Well, the answer is: a lot. Under Tony Blair, the centre-left has won three successive elections. It has had longer in power than any left of centre government in Europe outside of Sweden. Blair's period of government looks set to come to an end in unhappy circumstances for him. But unless the party succumbs to internal squabbles, under a new leader it could very well go on to win yet a fourth term of office.

-->Let me first of all dispose of the old accusation that Blair's Labour is really a rightist party masquerading as one of the left. Since Blair was elected in 1997, the proportion of GDP given over to taxation has risen from 38% to over 41%, about the EU average. Labour is not a party that stands for the expansion of markets at the expense of all else. There has been unprecedented investment in public services, especially education and health. A great deal has been done to tackle unemployment and poverty. A minimum wage has been introduced, set at a fairly high level. Union recognition has been given to workers previously denied it. Gay couples have been given new rights. These are not the actions of a right-wing party.

But Labour has moved away from 'old leftism' in a number of ways. These are the keys to its success and they contain lessons for the left in other countries. I would define five core principles of New Labour that are important in this way.

1. Prime place must be given to the economy and to job generation. If the economy is not strong, social justice is not possible. Before the advent of the current one, virtually all Labour governments had terminated amid conditions of economic crisis. To create economic growth, there has to be labour market reform. Divided labour markets, such as exist in France, create neither economic prosperity nor social justice. Those in protected jobs may do well, but those on the outside - young people, the poorly educated, or ethnic minorities - are forced to shoulder all the insecurities. Labour market reform and active labour market policies have been conspicuously effective since 1997 in the UK. 75% of the available labour force is in work, compared to 63% in France. Youth unemployment is virtually non-existent, and rates of long-term unemployment are very low.

2. Hold the political centre. We no longer live in a society where support from any single class group can deliver political success. The working class is shrinking away: today in the UK only 12% of the labour-force works in manufacture. The EU average is now down to 15%. The knowledge-based economy is a reality. Left of center parties must appeal to different groups than in the past - the lesson that is hardest of all to learn for many of them. Keeping a grip of the centre is not the same as relapsing into conservatism: the point is to shift the centre to the left. I would say that in the UK this aim has been achieved. Britain has become more of a social democratic society. To pursue electoral success, the Tories have had to accept many of Labour's goals and policies.

3. In pursuing social justice, concentrate upon the poor rather than the rich. Focus especially on reducing child poverty, since it is the most pernicious form of poverty of all. The rich make up only a tiny proportion of the population - 1% or less. Many of those who make money do so by creating wealth also for the wider community: a modern economy couldn't do without its entrepreneurs. They should act responsibly, pay their taxes, be encouraged to engage in philanthropic activities, and be good corporate citizens. But even a very substantial redistribution of their wealth, supposing it were economically neutral in other ways, would make little impact upon poverty. To reduce poverty, we should concentrate upon a redistribution of life-chances. Between 1997 and 2005, over two million people were lifted out of poverty in Britain, including some 800,000 children. The government missed its target of getting 1 million children out of poverty by 2005, but its achievements are nonetheless considerable.

4. Invest in public services only on condition that they are reformed, and reformed quite radically. Efficiency, but also increased choice and voice, are of crucial importance. Centralised delivery by the state is by no means always the best means of delivering these objectives. Those working in the state sector do not necessarily represent the public interest. State institutions are often unresponsive to citizens' needs, bureaucratic and dominated by the concerns of the producers. Delivery by third sector groups or commercial organisations, if effectively regulated, can sometimes be more effective than direct control by the state. We have to decide in all instances which combination most effectively creates public goods. It is gratuitous and wrong to counter-pose, as so many critics do, 'public'(state-based) services and 'private' (not-for-profit or commercial) ones. The real test is which serves the public interest best in any specific context.

5. Another very difficult lesson for most left of center parties to learn: do not cede any issues to the right. Instead seek to provide left of centre solutions to them. The left has typically tried to explain away, rather than directly confront, questions to do with crime, social disorder, migration and cultural identity, as if the concerns ordinary citizens feel about them were misplaced or irrelevant. Hence crime is assumed to be an expression of inequality. When inequality is reduced, levels of crime will fall too. Whether this view is correct or not, crime and anti-social behaviour are problems for citizens in the here and now, and have to be dealt with as such. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime is not just a sound-bite but, if elaborated properly, an appropriate policy formula. Blair has been widely criticised for undermining civil liberties in his approach to these questions. However, we should distinguish formal from substantive freedoms. Is a person free if he or she is afraid to walk in the local park, or go out at night, or if life becomes a misery because of rowdy neighbours? Sometimes formal freedoms of the few should be constrained in order to increase substantive freedoms of the many in a community.

It is Blair's commitment to this agenda, more than his personal qualities as such, that won Labour three successive terms of office. I have listened to the critics from the left (from various different countries) for the past ten years. If they have a detailed alternative agenda, I do not see what it is. Raise tax rates, pretend globalisation doesn't exist, don't meddle with the state sector, and stick with a traditional framework of civil liberties - that seems the sum of it. It's not exactly a sophisticated alternative, and it doesn't win elections.

Many problems exist for Labour and for the UK more generally. The country is striving to recover from two decade of Thatcherism, during which public services decayed and inequality rose sharply. There is a long way to go on reform of education and health-care. The health care system in France is better than that of the UK, since it has had many years more of consistent investment. The public in Britain is not convinced that the large amounts of money invested in the National Health Service have produced the anticipated improvements. Something has gone seriously wrong with the management of public expectations here. With record-breaking sums of investment going in, Labour should have consolidated its strong position as the party most trusted to deliver a top-class health service. Instead, the Tories actually have a lead on the issue.

Renewal for the future has to mean a continuing active search for ideological and policy innovation. Climate change and energy have moved insistently up the agenda, as have other problems (such as obesity) that will demand life-style change. Yet policy initiatives in these areas should have been developed far earlier. New Labour lacked the courage to introduce road pricing, but it will have to come, and in short order too. The environment can no longer be treated as a free good; and diversification of energy sources will be vital.

'Renewal' - it's the word of the moment, at least in the UK. What should it signify? It can't mean the 'alternative' just mentioned. It should mean first of all further elaborating the policies Labour already has in place. For instance, the government has set the target of reducing child poverty by half by 2010 as compared to 1997. It will not achieve that target if the policies in place at the moment aren't upgraded and further radicalised.

I would stress that in this article I have been looking at policies, not comparing countries. I'm not suggesting than Britain is a better country to live in than France is. I do not imply that a reformed French left should adopt a New Labour framework as a whole, which is scarcely imaginable in any case. Countries have different needs and trajectories of development. Moreover, there are many other versions of reformism to learn from, especially in my view the policies of social democrats in the Scandinavian states. But the British case provides ample food for reflection as the French left struggles to achieve a unified world-view.