Red Pepper, March 1997
Tony Blair looks set to win the general election. That’s good, but the left shouldn’t expect radical change, says Paul Anderson
Labour has been ultra-cautious with its pre-election policy commitments for a long time now. Avoiding hostages to fortune was a crucial element of the pre-1992 campaign strategy – and John Smith as leader decided to make it the guiding light of Labour policy-making. Since Tony Blair became leader in 1994, however, “safety first” has been taken to new extremes in just about every area of policy.
The priorities for Blair and shadow chancellor Gordon Brown have been to reassure taxpayers and to calm business nerves. They have repeatedly announced that they will run a tight anti-inflationary fiscal and monetary regime. In January, Brown promised not to change either the top rate or the standard rate of income tax – and said that, with the exception of the money he gets from his windfall tax on the excess profits of privatised utilities, he will stick to the Tories’ plans for public spending for his first two years in office. That means a continuing clamp-down on public-sector pay and only small increases in spending on health, education and local government.
Policy on Europe has changed little since 1994 – although shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook has adopted a marginally more sceptical position on economic and monetary union than Labour had before. The idea of the EU running a counter-cyclical macro-economic policy, very popular with both Brown and Cook, has been downgraded, although this is in part because the Delors plan on which it was based was scuppered by the British government in the Council of Ministers.
Labour has stuck to its promise to sign up to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty. But since 1994 it has watered down its commitments to rights for part-time and temporary workers and has abandoned plans to allow trade unions to engage in sympathy actions in certain circumstances. It has also changed its policy on its promised minimum wage: instead of announcing what it will be before the election, as in 1992, it will leave it up to a commission to set it afterwards at a “sensible” level.
In education, the key change since 1994 is that Labour has made it clear that it will not now abolish grammar or grant-maintained schools. In health policy, the party’s opposition to the internal market and GP fundholding has softened. Labour will not now abolish Jobseeker’s Allowance and go back to Unemployment Benefit, and its pensions policy is in limbo after last year’s row at its party conference. The welfare state in its broadest sense is, however, an area where Labour could well prove radical in government. Its plans for “lifelong learning” and a “university for industry” are ambitious, and its “welfare to work” strategy for tackling unemployment contains much that makes sense.
Changing the constitution was the one thing about which Labour under Smith was not ultra-cautious. Reformers looked forward to a Labour government legislating for a Bill of Rights, an elected second chamber and devolution to a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and directly elected regional councils in England. Labour also promised a referendum on the electoral system. Now devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions will happen only if people vote for it in referendums, and Lords reform will be limited for now to removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers. There are persistent rumours, denied by Blair’s office, that he has decided to ditch plans for a referendum on electoral reform.
ENVIRONMENT AND TRANSPORT
Labour has downgraded the profile of environment policy since 1994 – to the disappointment of green campaigners (see Charles Secrett in last month’s Red Pepper) – but has not formally changed it. On transport, its key shift has been on what to do about the privatised rail network, where it is now promising something less than wholesale renationalisation.