Peter Mair presents an argument that is bold and very interesting—above all, because it provides a coherent account of the Blair government’s ‘constitutional’ politics which does, indeed, eliminate the apparent ‘paradox’ at the centre of the Third Way.footnote1 I admire this attempt while not being wholly convinced by it; in part, because it works better as a description of what has happened than as an explanation. There seem to me several problems which have not been and probably cannot be disposed of by Mair’s argument. The first is his major premise: that ‘it hardly seems enough to suggest that Blair and his colleagues don’t know what they’re doing’. But if history teaches us any lessons, one of them is surely that politicians very frequently do not. Mair’s assumption to the contrary is surprising. Thus, for example, his interpretation of the government’s House of Lords reforms—that they are considered attempts to place expertise above faction—may be plausible. But it is, at the moment, no more plausible than one that suggests they are a dog’s breakfast—a combination of existing party caucuses and appointive notables, with a dash of elected figures and a hereditary rump—cooked up by people who really do not know where they are going.
Nor can his account explain why the reforms have stalled, probably indefinitely, precisely at the moment they matter. Hitherto, institutional changes—devolution, new electoral rules, direct election of mayors—have been confined to subordinate or intermediate authorities; whereas if the system of partisan democracy is to be eliminated or modified, as Mair suggests, one would expect reforms at the centre to be crucial to the present government. But clearly they are not. This ‘not knowing where you are going’ is of a piece with New Labour’s general direction. Although the Prime Minister has, for example, repeatedly said that the goal of the government is the ‘modernization’ of Britain, he has been quite unable to say exactly what that is. If we have only a vague sense of what he might mean, that is partly because the Labour Party itself is not agreed on what constitutes modernization. To Blair, it seems to represent a change in personal relationships—democratic and unstuffy social manners, which carry with them a larger imperative. To others, it means an attack upon ‘vested interests’ and economic inertia, in the name of a wholly meritocratic society—a policy not unrelated to Blair’s. To yet others, particularly those who would not repudiate an Old Labour affiliation, it represents a renewed drive for ‘equality’. To a number, it is probably a little bit of everything.
Mair’s account also, it seems to me, overlooks the specific circumstances that largely determined the government’s constitutional programme. Although he is sceptical of the notion that New Labour simply inherited Scottish and Welsh devolution, the new London Assembly, etc., the fact is that they did. The relative autonomy of the Scottish Labour Party; the extent to which an agreed form of Scottish self-government had united all the major local institutions and political parties, except the Conservatives; and outrage at the way Scotland had been treated by an ‘English’ parliament under the Tories, all made Scottish devolution an inescapable commitment for any Labour government. So, too, was the creation of a London Assembly. The abolition of the old Greater London Council by Mrs Thatcher was a pyrrhic victory for her. There was a widespread feeling (shared by some in the Conservative Party) that to deny London, almost uniquely among major cities, a central, elected authority was a mistake—as much on social and economic as political grounds. This was one reason why the Conservatives never seriously opposed its restoration in a new guise. Welsh devolution, perhaps, was avoidable; but the government was under tremendous pressure from the Welsh Labour Party to yield a referendum, nonetheless.
Yet however unavoidable the measures, the evidence suggests that the government was very nervous about them and consistently sought to limit their scope. The second question in the Scottish referendum—which put the Assembly’s right to levy an extra income tax to the vote—was inserted by the Prime Minister, and it was very fortunate for him and for Scotland that it was carried. The government, similarly, did everything it could to box in the new London mayor and Assembly, stripping them of most of the powers a devolved government could expect. The authority of the Welsh Assembly is as weak. Where Mair’s analysis has more force, perhaps, is in the direct election of the mayor of London, which runs against the tradition of the Labour Party. There have, it is true, been powerful Labour figures within local government. Herbert Morrison, in London, and Patrick Dollan, in Glasgow, were more like first ministers than ordinary party leaders; but they were untypical. The direct election of the mayor of London almost certainly does represent an attempt to establish a partyless, un-ideological democracy, centred around a dominant personality. It was precisely on these grounds that Ken Livingstone had criticized direct election; though, of course, it was precisely these grounds that got him elected. The problem for any government, with this style of democracy, is that the dominant personality need not necessarily be sympathetic to it. Partyless democracy works only if he or she is a government loyalist.
I would also agree with Mair that the point of the government’s strategy is to bypass the Labour Party, by taking sensitive issues out of its hands. Thus the recourse to referenda. Such a strategy could be the result of a considered democratic theory. It is more likely, however, to be the result of a conviction, held widely within the leadership of the Party both before and after Tony Blair became leader, that, left to itself, the Labour Party would return to the early 1980s and become ‘unelectable’. The belief is, indeed, sometimes openly articulated, that any loss of control by the leadership—whether in the Party itself or in devolved government—will end in electoral disaster. It is this, I think, that accounts for the half-heartedness of so many of the reforms, and the fiascos in Wales and London. Despite everything that happened in the 1980s, the fear that the old Adam lurks within the bosom of the Labour Party—and the extent to which that fear drives the leadership—is actually quite surprising. The traditional Left has now virtually no power base and the government has been under very little threat from it—or from Old Labour, more broadly. Although there is a small group of discontented backbench MPs, the parliamentary party likewise has put the government under comparatively little pressure. The trade unions are equally marginalized.
Yet despite this, the reason given for the Prime Minister’s reckless opposition to Ken Livingstone’s candidacy for the mayoralty of London—almost as reckless as anything done by the Party in the 1980s—is that Livingstone is thought to be irremediably a figure of the past; a dangerous person who could set a bad example. Livingstone, however, is a serious politician; and while it is true that he is also a playful politician, such that it would be unwise to predict exactly where he will end up, we can be sure that wherever it is, it will not be the early 1980s. At the moment, the only people who seem stuck in the 1980s are the Prime Minister and his advisers: which means that they will do little to promote a coherent democracy, consensual or otherwise. Furthermore, even the recourse to referenda, and attempts to appeal directly to the electorate through the media—whose effect is indeed to marginalize the Party—are also a consequence of a debilitating lack of confidence in Labour’s powers of persuasion and moral standing in British society. Any change deemed fundamental, and thus contentious, can be shifted to a referendum: whatever happens, New Labour then escapes the burden of decision. The wooing of the tabloids, equally, largely follows from the fact that the government has devised no independent strategy for dealing with their influence—something apparent even before the 1997 election.
Above all, Mair’s analysis neglects the political economy of New Labour: it tries to isolate a theory of democracy from the government’s wider ambitions. But its politics cannot be treated in this way. The Third Way is much less a formula for constitutional change than a prescription for political economy. What is this? The Third Way is perhaps best understood as Thatcherism tempered by Old Labour. It accepts, almost in their entirety, the policies of the Thatcher government: privatization, deregulation, ‘flexible’ labour markets, low taxation, endless ‘reforms’ of the educational system, the hunt for dole scroungers—more or less the whole of the neo-liberal programme; indeed, in some respects New Labour has gone beyond the Conservatives. It has, however, inherited from Old Labour a bad conscience about some of this programme, and a feeling that people cannot be left just to sink or swim. The government’s social spending, therefore, is not as tightly controlled as it pretends. But of the two elements, Thatcherism is at the moment undoubtedly preponderant. It is this that makes the 1997 election so extraordinary: the policies of the party that overwhelmingly won differed in no significant way from those of the party that overwhelmingly lost.