Blair’s long retreat into ‘lifestyle’ politics
New Labour's big idea for improving life in Britain? Ban happy hours in pubs.
We are told that New Labour now intends to ‘lead the political debate away from the troubled Hutton arena by taking forward the domestic agenda’ (1). It is not hard to see why prime minister Tony Blair would want to turn attention away from the weapons of mass destruction issue. How much cosier it must seem to talk about the NHS rather than those pesky WMD.
The irony is that Blair has spent years building up international issues like Kosovo and Iraq, because it was easier to look authoritative and presidential strutting about the world stage than bogged down in domestic issues. Now, having run into trouble over Iraq’s invisible WMD and Lord Hutton’s much-derided report, Blair wants to retreat back into the trenches of British politics to prepare for the forthcoming general election campaign.
And the long retreat goes much further than that. Look more closely at what New Labour is now proposing, and it appears that ‘taking forward the domestic agenda’ today really means abandoning some of the central goals of the agenda it has laid out in the past two elections. The Blair government is suffering a major loss of nerve, backing down on its promise fundamentally to reform and revitalise the big public services, and instead falling back increasingly on intrusive little ‘lifestyle’ issues.
Modernising the health and education systems has been the number one aim declared by the New Labour government. This central command-run campaign has always been more about meeting paper targets than improving reality in the wards and classrooms. To that end, the authorities have spent billions setting up bureaucratic systems of regulation and bean-counting.
Now it has been announced that New Labour is to stage a ‘bonfire of targets’, scrapping many central controls and allowing hospitals and schools more control over what they do. This has been flagged up as a welcome counter to New Labour’s reputation for ‘control-freakery’. In fact it is an implicit admission of failure, an acknowledgement that major improvements to these public services is beyond the government’s control. Blair, having been in power for almost seven years, this week admitted that it could take another 15 years to improve things significantly (2). He might as well have said 150 years, for all the difference it will make to the way people see things today.
Of course, it is unimaginable that New Labour should really go cold turkey on its statistical fix of targets and accountancy measures. So when John Reid, the health secretary, announced plans to drop 62 national targets for hospitals, he quickly added proposals to replace them with 24 ‘core standards’ and 10 further goals. Some bonfire. What the abandonment of its treasured targets does indicate, however, is that the government wants to lower still further public expectations of what its grand public sector reforms can achieve.
Meanwhile, as the scope for change in the public sphere continues to shrink, we hear more and more from the government about Lilliputian ‘lifestyle’ politics, petty schemes for intervening in the private sphere. The business of governments used to involve defending and promoting a broad set of values, ideas and institutions that they defined as the British Way of Life. Now it increasingly seems to mean interfering in the way that individuals live their lives in Britain.
As Dr Michael Fitzpatrick has argued before on spiked, the focus of health policy has shifted away from a simple concern with curing the ill, towards a zealous obsession with instructing the rest of us in the ways of Healthy Living (3). We are bombarded with propaganda messages about the dire perils of everything from fatty food and alcohol to passive smoking and unprotected sex. Astounded that some people continue to ignore its instructions on what they should eat, drink, breathe, and wear in bed, New Labour has now embarked on a major public consultation, ostensibly to ask people ‘how they think the nation can tackle issues like obesity, smoking and sexually transmitted diseases’ (4). It seems unlikely that the conclusion of this PR exercise will be ‘the public want us to go away and leave them alone’.
The low level of political debate engendered by the obsession with lifestyle politics is made clear in recent headlines like this: ‘Clampdown by Blair on happy hour.’ The idea is that the government will empower local councils to limit cheap drinks promotions where they deem that pubs and bars are encouraging ‘irresponsible’ or ‘excessive’ drinking (5). This is the sort of big idea that New Labour now has for improving the nation’s health: sending in the municipal jobsworths to stamp out the sinful habit of people getting two drinks for the price of one in the early evening.
Even here, on its chosen battleground of lifestyle regulation, an increasingly timid New Labour pulls some of its punches. Thus it has so far gone against its own instincts, by refusing to heed demands for a total ban on smoking in public or food adverts on children’s television. Fearful of being accused of pursuing ‘nanny state’ policies, health secretary Reid insists that the government ‘should not tell people how to live their lives’. ‘However’, he quickly adds, ‘the government can help people make healthy choices, by providing information, encouragement and support’ (6). Such re-education policies are simply a more acceptable form of social engineering than outright bans. Providing the correct ‘information’ to ‘encourage’ us to make ‘healthy choices’ is the authoritarian weapon of preference today.
What are the prospects for New Labour as it retreats further into the domestic, private arena? These sorts of policies, designed out of a desperation to ‘connect’ with the public, are unlikely to inspire electoral enthusiasm or rebuild the government’s badly damaged trust and authority. Blair’s trump card in the next election remains the Tory Party. Like Labour, it too is devoid of any political principles about how to build the Good Society. But the Tories are still too busy distancing themselves from their own past – ‘we’re not anti-Europe, we support gay marriage, we’ll spend even more on the NHS’ – to come up with a vision of the future that is fit to compete even with the mind-numbing prospects of a third Blair term.
The prospects for the abstention party, however, seem to be getting better by the day. Widespread cynicism and disillusionment won at the last election, when more people failed to vote than voted for New Labour. Next time it could enjoy a landslide, possibly even winning over an absolute majority of the electorate. In the absence of any political or intellectual alternative to the current circus, that would not be a very happy hour for anybody.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
(1) Labour in retreat on targets, Guardian, 10 February 2004
(2) Blair: fixing key services will take 15 years, Guardian, 13 February 2004
(3) See A New Year prescription, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
(4) Public to take part in health debate, 10 Downing Street, News Release, 3 February 2004
(5) ‘Clampdown by Blair on happy hour’, Sunday Times, 8 February 2004
(6) ‘Clampdown by Blair on happy hour’, Sunday Times, 8 February 2004
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