1997 – Blair’s Leader’s Speech at Conference

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Will add the Leader’s speech to the party conference when I can find it. In the meantime, to give you a flavour of Blair BEFORE he became Prime Minister in May 1997, this is, a speech to a fringe meeting at an earlier gathering of Nexus (Policy & Ideas Network) in March 1997.

1/3/97 Speech at the Nexus/Guardian conference
by Tony Blair, Leader of the Labour Party


I am particularly delighted to welcome Walter Veltroni here today. He made a great impression when he spoke at Labour Party conference this year, and I have been distributing his speech to anyone who asks me about the future of the centre-left. As Walter said: “We are a new generation that is striving to reconcile idealism and government, radical values and realistic solutions…a new Left is needed, a Left which is capable of reconciling the socialist inspiration of the 20th century with other philosophies from the liberal to the environemntalist.”Let me also applaud the energy and intellect of the people who make up Nexus, Britain’s first virtual think-tank. Nexus is not just frighteningly youthful: it is made up of people who are free from cycnicism without being naive, striving for new insights without forgetting old ones. Nexus has a crucial role in sustaining the momentum of progressive politics, not just in opposition but in Government too.We have reached a critical point in late twentieth century British politics. There is a new Conservative Party, with a weak leader unable to contain the hard right, haemorrhaging support in previously safe Tory areas. And now new Labour is drawing in new support to create the broadly based progressive movement that Britain has needed for so long. There is now a modern and relevant alternative to the Conservatives, reaching out from the mainstream of politics, with appeal throughout Britain, across every region, class, age and creed.

It says something that the Conservatives could not hold an event like this. They have run out of ideas. Their membership is falling. Their youth section would struggle to fill a phone box. And they find it hard to persuade more than two members of the Cabinet to agree with each other for more than a few hours.

But this occasion is more than a rally by one party. It involves people from various parties and none, and that is a strength. This is the age not of dogma or stale ideology but practical change. One of the building blocks of new Labour is that no party has a monopoly on the truth. I have never believed our politics should be tribal. Most people do not belong to a political tribe. Today I want to set out my vision not of a grand coalition between parties, but of a new partnership with the people.

Changing Context for Reform Politics

There have been two great reforming governments in Britain this century: 1906 and 1945. They both developed a body of ideas that swept the Conservatives aside. They engineered major social, economic and political reform. They are the defining moments of our reforming heritage.

The values of those governments were not the same, but they shared common elements: opportunity for all and privilege for none, standing up for the underdog, using the state to empower the individual. Today our task is to take the core values of reform politics – progress on the one hand and justice on the other – and apply them to the new world in which we live.

I passionately believe in the equal worth of every individual. I hate the squalor and idleness that shames our rich societies. I am committed to breaking down barriers of class and sex and race. I want to curb unaccountable power. I want more people to get on. And I am certain that we will only help more people get on if we create a strong and just society, designed to empower the many and not the few.

These are old values. But they need to be realised in new circumstances.

In a global economy, 1 trillion dollars a day is traded on international currency markets. The world’s multinationals have budgets bigger than most governments. Exchange controls and capital controls have been abolished. So we need to rethink the role of macroeconomic policy.

Changes in computing and communications technology are transforming our culture and society. 40 per cent of families with children have access to up to date pcs. Ten years ago we had three TV channels; soon we will have 200. We can produce more than ever before, with less labour than ever before.

The adult life-cycle no longer corresponds to the model of Beveridge. Education needs to go on throughout life. Women are gaining 80 per cent of new jobs. Some people are working into their 70s, while for others retirement can last for thirty years, to be followed by 24 hour a day care. So we need to rethink the welfare state.

Meanwhile the debate about tax and spending has been transformed. If you said twenty years ago that a Government would spend more on welfare and less on defence, double the national debt, spend £130 billion of North Sea Oil and impose the biggest tax hike in peacetime history, they would have said you were guaranteed better public services and less poverty. They would also have said that this was a Labour government not a Tory one. But in fact Government is spending more than under the last Labour government, with higher taxes, but are getting less for it. Poverty is up, unemployment up, crime up, low pay up. So we need to rethink our view of tax and public spending.

The Left of Centre Changing the World Over

Throughout Europe, from Helsinki to Athens and Dublin to Vienna, socialists and social democrats are leading the political response to this new world. They have abandoned what Willy Brandt called the ‘theology of the final goal’ – the socialist end of history defined by public ownership and the triumph of the working class. In its place they are putting in the correct order the values on which their politics are based, and the policies to make them a reality.

In Italy the PDS says “the state should do less but enable more”. In Holland Wim Kok has cut unemployment to 6 per cent by reforming the welfare state. In Sweden and Norway, the delivery of social benefits as well as social services is being decentralised, and public/private partnerships developed to address long term pensions funding. The Portugese socialist government, I read this week. is mobilising the country’s banks to lend to small and medium sized businesses as part of their ‘new socialist’ philosophy. In Austria the Social Democratic Party has moved to embrace the dynamism of small scale private enterprise, supported by local government. The Danish government have put responsibilities as well as rights at the heart of their programme. In Finland Paavo Lipponen is promoting flexibility to improve competitiveness. The Spanish socialist party has lost power, but is undergoing rapid internal modernisation as the basis for the next election. All these parties have in addition recognised that to deliver an effective social strategy you need sound public finances.

All these parties emphasise a historic task of the left – political reform. All see their future as outward-looking and anti- protectionist parties. All are seeking to to build an investment strategy based on education and training. All are modernising their welfare states to promote work. The big issues are being tackled byt the left and centre-left.

There is change outside Europe too. President Clinton’s economic record has established the Democrats as the party of competent economic management. And he has taken the lead on education, reinventing government and the labour market. In Australia Paul Keating’s government lost power, but only after 13 years of active government.

New Labour is proud to take its place in defining this new politics.

New Labour

The case for new Labour is simply stated: for four elections the voters may have been sympathetic to our values, but they did not believe we would carry them out in government. I have never believed Labour’s values – its real socialism – were its problem. The problem was that we lost sight of them, and lost sight of the distinction between our goals and how we implement them.

The organisational changes have been immense: a new constitution stating our core values not an economic credo, all MPs and the leadership selected by ordinary members, policy-making opened up and new policies put to the membership, our relationship with the unions put on a new footing.

The ideological changes have been significant too. We recognise the global economy. We know the state can become a vested interest. We want to see successful, profit-making companies. We want to decentralise power. We have taken seriously the challenge of environmental concerns.

At every stage, I have had one thing in mind – to offer the UK a new political choice by creating a party representing a broad coalition for progress and justice, planning for the future and always doing so on the basis of the many not the few.

Progress and Justice: The Strategic Priorities

Think about the central challenges for Britain in the future: to raise the quality and quantity of our investment in human capital, to heal our fractured society, above all the divide between those with work and those without, to build a mature relationship between government and business, to reform our structures of government so they serve the people, and to forge a new and distinctive role for Britain in the world. In each of these areas.

I defy anyone to say that Labour does not offer a distinctive alternative to the new right. Labour in government will make a difference to people’s lives, using government to help the broad majority not the few at the top.

On welfare and employment, the choice is between an unfunded workfare scheme with a success rate of one in ten under the Tories, and the most sustained attack on structural unemployment ever seen in this country, funded by a windfall tax on the £50 billion excess profits of the privatised utilities. Rights will be matched with responsibility. But those rights will be meaningful for the young unemployed currently left without hope, for the long term unemployed men written off in their 40s, for the single mothers given a benefit cheque and told not to come back until their youngest child is 16. And if anyone is in any doubt that the windfall tax is right and affordable, just ask the two US power companies who this week have bid £1.5 billion for Yorkshire Electricity and say they would have no problem paying the windfall tax.

On education, the Tories’ say go backwards, separate out children at 11 into grammar schools and secondary moderns. Our alternative is simple too: level up not down. Guarantee quality nursery provision for four year olds. Cut class sizes. Set year on year targets for improvement. Connect every school to the superhighway. Organise literacy summer schools to get every 11 year old reading like an eleven year old. A General Teaching Council to support teachers. Mandatory qualifications for head teachers. Broader A levels. This is programme of school improvement never seen in this country.

Business was previously monopolised by the Tories’. Now they are coming to Labour. Why? Because the Tories only vision of the future is for more people to work harder for less. Of course we need flexibility. But we need flexibility plus high skills, plus proper infrastructure, plus support for small business, plus decent standards of work, plus support for the environment, plus family freindly working. Flexibility plus adds value and adds to our quality of life. And that is the way we will bring back the feel-good factor, by building a lsting recovery that brings benefits to all the people and not just a few.

Our constitution is archaic, our institutions derided. What is the Conservative response? Not steady reform. But no change. Mr Major now makes Wellington look like a dangerous reformer. He is standing with those who have opposed progress throughout the ages. The party that opposed universal suffrage and votes for women, whose MPs now take cash for asking questions and whose Ministers mislead Parliament now say that the decentralisation of power and the curbing of unaccountable power and privilege are a threat to this country. The constitution belongs to no party. It should belong to the country. And that is the test of reform – putting people in charge of politics.

Finally in relation to Europe, there are only three positions. Out – favoured by growing numbers of Tories. In but impotent – the position of Mr Major and his Cabinet. Or in but leading, working within the EU to secure reform and a good deal for Britain. This is a choice about how to fulfil Britain’s world role in the 21st century. We cannot do it alone; we can do it leading reform in Europe.

An economy based on investment in people, a society based on rights and responsibilities, a political system based on decentralisation and accountability: these goals are mutually reinforcing. They empower the individual to contribute to society, they build community to empower the individual.

This is the heart of my political credo. The individual prospers in a strong society, with rights matched by obligations: justice for all, responsibility from all.

The great reforming governments of the past believed these things and succeeded in many ways. But they failed in one crucial way: they failed to build a lasting coalition for change.

Partnership with the People

Our task is to build around us a wide, forward-looking movement which reaches out beyond the Labour Party. We are pleased that Ted Heath endorses the minimum wage and devolution, pleased to cooperate with the Liberal Democrats on constitutional reform. And if we can convince one nation Tories and Liberal Democrats to support some of our legislation in Parliament, so much the better.

But the coalition for change is not a matter of constructing deals among politicians or pacts between parties. Governments that want to lead change need roots, deep roots. We are not engaged in a cultural revolution, redesigning society from the top down according to a blueprint. We are taking a living, breathing nation and trying to build on its strengths. Our task is to unify not divide, reaching across the old boundaries not just to seek new support but to build change.

Our coalition must reach out to people rather than parties, public or private sector, whether active in voluntary organistions or churches, schools or universities. We do not need a grand coalition of parties; we need a grand coalition of people who want change.

To improve schools we need teachers and parents and employers and local authorities playing a part.

To cut crime we need community groups and the police and educators and the probation service. To boost business we need employers and unions and government to work together.

We need every conceivable ally in our tasks. We are fighting a common enemy. We have a shared anaylsis of their failure. We have goals in common. And we have common supporters – the vast majority of the British people who know our country can be better than this.

Progress: a politics for the future not the past. Justice: a politics for the many not the few. Brought together through clear leadership and direction, not by one person but by a team of people. I have never believed leadership is not about government doing things for or to people. It is about recognising the energy and ideas of people themselves, and realising that the job of government is to unleash their talent.

For a century the Tories have claimed to believe in competition. For 18 years they have had a monopoly of power. Now we are breaking that monopoly. There is a great prize at stake. With courage and discipline we will achieve it.


NEXUS


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