It's the community, not the economy, stupid

4th April 1997 at 01:00
We are entering upon the most curious election campaign of modern times. Most analysts regard economic well-being as the most important factor in voting behaviour - "It's the economy, stupid", as Bill Clinton told his critics. The British economy is now more successful than it has been for many years. The International Monetary Fund declares that our position is "enviable". Yet every opinion poll suggests a landslide victory for Labour.

The Conservatives, despite the economy, remain massively unpopular. Indeed, no government in modern times has begun an election campaign so far behind since February 1945 when Winston Churchill's Conservatives found themselves 20 per cent behind Labour. By the time of the election, in July, they had reduced the gap, despite Churchill's "Gestapo" speech, to 8 per cent, although, given the way the electoral system then operated, this was sufficient to give Labour an overall majority of 146.

1997, however, is far from being another 1945. Labour then was campaigning against a return to "the hungry Thirties", campaigning not so much against Churchill as against the ghosts of Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. Labour advocated a radical new approach so as to secure full employment and a modern welfare state. Today, by contrast, Labour declares that it can be trusted not to disturb the Thatcherite dispensation - a dispensation which it has spent much of the past 18 years denouncing. "Britain is better off with the Conservatives. Don't let John Major ruin it" might well be Labour's slogan. For it is John Major and the Tory Right, not the Labour party, who propose radical change, extending the market principle into the welfare state and reforming the pensions and social security systems.

In the 1940s, the French political scientist, Bertrand de Jouvenel, declared of the Attlee government that it was giving rise to distinctive conservative tendencies. In 1966, Harold Wilson campaigned on the slogan, "You know Labour government works", while in 1974, he promised peace and quiet after the industrial upheavals of the Heath years.

Nowhere, perhaps, are the conservative tendencies of Labour more apparent than in education. Interviewed two weeks ago by Jeremy Paxman, Tony Blair committed himself to just two reforms in schools. The first was to abolish the Assisted Places Scheme, using the money to reduce class sizes for five- to seven-year-olds. The second was to introduce "associate teachers" into the classroom to link education more firmly with the commercial world.

While remaining opposed to selection, at least in the form in which it operated under the 11-plus system, Mr Blair indicated that it was not worth wasting parliamentary time abolishing the 160 remaining grammar schools, unless local parents demanded it. Labour is now as committed as the Conservatives to parental choice.

Yet most Labour voters, especially in education, have high expectations of a Labour government. They will be hoping for rapid improvements, improvements which cost money. Teachers and academics, together no doubt with those working in the NHS, are the last devotees of tax-and-spend socialism. They are likely to be very disappointed.

For Mr Blair and New Labour do not believe that the problems of education stem primarily from shortage of funds, but from a fundamental cultural shift. This shift, moreover, occurred not under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, but under Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins in the 1960s. It was the shift towards individualism and the so-called "permissive society". In the last volume of his trilogy on the history of the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm calls it a fundamental revolution in attitudes. This revolution has shaped politics far more than anything that politicians have done, and Margaret Thatcher was a consequence rather than a cause of it.

It is, in principle at least, much easier to reverse a pattern of under-funding, than to reverse cultural change. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, in his recently published book, The Politics of Hope, is by no means alone in calling for a return to community obligation and a retreat from libertarianism. No more than anyone else, however, has he been able to suggest a practical programme by which it can be achieved.

Labour's success depends less upon a change of economic or social priorities than upon a change of heart. The phrase "a change of heart" leaves New Labour open to instant mockery from Marxists and Fabians alike, and yet, as George Orwell showed, without a change of heart socialism cannot work. If it relies solely on institutional change, on changes in machinery, socialism degenerates either into 1984 or into the Winter of Discontent.

Labour governments have often sought to extend popular rights. Yet they have always relied upon a pre-existing sense of community obligation. The 1945 government was lucky to inherit the spirit of wartime collectivism. As that spirit waned, with the middle classes complaining of rationing and austerity, the government lost direction. The Wilson and Callaghan governments assumed that the trade unions had as much sense of the public interest as their wartime predecessors under Bevin. The Winter of Discontent showed the falsity of that assumption and inaugurated 18 years of Tory government.

It might seem as if Blair's search for a rejuvenated spirit of community is foredoomed to failure; and yet, part of the reason for Labour's large lead in the opinion polls is a sense that, despite increasing material prosperity, Britain is a nation that has lost its way. There is a yearning, inchoate no doubt, but real, for a return of traditional family values and for a restoration of community. John Major appropriated Orwell's words when he spoke of a Britain in which old maids cycled to Communion on Sundays. In the Britain of the l990s, "old-fashioned" has long ceased to be a term of opprobrium. So it is that, in seeking to restore the lost ideal of community, a land of lost content, Tony Blair is not only true to the historic roots of the Labour party. He is also a better socialist than his critics in the party, and a better patriot than the Tories.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, Oxford University. His book Power and the People: a guide to constitutional reform will be published shortly by Gollancz

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