Low ‘Ambitions for Britain’

'New Labour's commitment to "equality of worth" is worse than worthless.'

Jennie Bristow

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‘The trouble with Tony Blair is, he’s a Christian’, said a friend the other day. ‘And he can’t seem to get beyond that.’

Many of those who cringed at the sight of Tony Blair announcing the election date at St Saviour’s and St Olave’s school, singing from a hymnbook in front of a stained-glass window, would sympathise with this analogy. But Blair’s first keynote speech of the campaign, delivered in his Sedgefield constituency on Sunday 13 May, is a more telling comparison.

Tony Blair cannot get beyond his religion, that is true. But it’s not traditional Christianity his politics are wedded to, so much as the new secular religion of therapy. And we can see that the New Labour manifesto, titled ‘Ambitions for Britain’, will not be a political manifesto addressing social change, but a statement of the kind of ambitions a father has for his children: a bit of personal encouragement, within the framework of a small and limited life.

‘There is much talk in politics of the need for a big idea’, Blair told Sedgefield. ‘New Labour’s big idea is the development of human potential, the belief that there is talent and ability and caring in each individual that often lies unnurtured or discouraged.’ Well – building the kind of society in which the true potential of humanity could be realised is a very big idea, and one that I fully support. But that’s not what Blair is talking about.

What Daddy Blair means is the development of each individual’s potential to be a fully-fledged member of New Labour society. To develop people’s ‘talent and ability’, the next government will drive people through education from the cradle to the grave, whether they like it or not. It is ‘committed to 50 percent of our young people getting a university degree’ (whatever a degree might represent today), and ‘will invest in adult skills, science, technology’. The next government will also instil in us the New Labour work ethic: ‘We want to drive through a genuine enterprise and entrepreneurial culture’; and ‘We want the New Deal extended to all those who can work but don’t’ (1).

Meanwhile, to develop people’s ‘caring’ potential, New Labour will continue to force through the various quasi-compulsory volunteering schemes it has created and mooted in its first term – for Blair believes there is ‘a responsibility from us all to provide help’ just as much as he believes there is ‘a responsibility on us all to use that help to help ourselves’.

In Blairspeak, then, the development of the human potential means two things. It is a therapeutic mission – not about social change, but about promoting limited self-advancement – education and work – as a means to developing individuals’ self-esteem. And it is a controlling mission – for what happens if you don’t want your potential developed by the means set down by the government?

New Labour’s big idea, says Blair, is ‘based on a notion of equality that is not about outcomes or incomes; but about equal worth’. Sounds worthy indeed – but what is ‘equal worth’? It is certainly not equal rights – under New Labour, you only get rights once you accept the responsibilities the government has laid down.

Equal worth, by contrast, is a term that is not political, but therapeutic; and it is both vacuous and disingenuous. It means that every individual should feel that their existence is as worthwhile as that of the next person – as though people haven’t always thought this. What it doesn’t mean, however, is that their existence counts for as much as the next person. As Blair goes on to explain, ‘we are meritocrats’, and in a meritocracy, some go to the top and their views count for more. Unravel this, and you get even deeper into the dark heart of the New Labour project.

By emphasising ‘equal worth’ and the building of a ‘meritocracy’, New Labour wants to take us further beyond the class-based politics of the past. Blair would like us to believe that the time has passed when people’s parents’ status or income determined their own income, when people defined themselves by background. In a meritocracy, supposedly, every person has an equal chance of making it, according to how hard they work and how good they are – provided they follow the path laid out for them by the government.

But wait! New Labour is not about ‘incomes and outcomes’. This meritocracy is one based on ‘equal worth’, in which there is no concept of merit – there is only the opportunity for individuals to develop their potential. So what can it all mean?

You cannot have a ‘meritocracy’ based on the concept of ‘equal worth’. All you can have is a society where people are told to value themselves whatever they do, whoever they are, because they’re ‘worth it’ in the most abstract sense. This is the opposite of ambitious – it is about reconciling people to their lives, their jobs, their situation, the society they live in, on the grounds that everybody has equal worth.

Yet as cunning formulations go, this is a work of genius. It means that, if you are a good girl or boy and follow the life-course laid down by the government, the very fact that you follow this life-course means that you have the opportunity to develop your potential in this non-meritocratic meritocracy. If you don’t get very far very fast, it will be presumed that your potential to do so is limited – but that doesn’t matter, because your essential worth equals that of the next person. Meanwhile, meritocratic New Labour gets on bestowing merit on its People’s Peers and other friends.

The flip-side, of course, is that if you feel your potential is best developed by not getting a job, not going to university, not volunteering, not being entrepreneurial and not engaging in life-long learning, you have obviously decided to waste your potential.

And so, as we approach New Labour’s second term, politics has got personal. Big ideas and ambitions no longer mean big political ideas and social ambitions, but represent a 25-step counselling course developed by politicians to lead well-behaved individuals towards a greater sense of self-esteem. And that, apparently, is all we’re worth.

(1) See Hard Labour by Josie Appleton in spiked-geist: Day Seven

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