BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 29.09.02

Film: LABOUR CONFERENCE. Paul Wilenius asks if New Labour has run into the buffers.

But first, the Labour Party spent a decade persuading the country that it could be trusted not to turn Britain into some sort of socialist state. The pillars of Old Labour were demolished and replaced with the New Labour project. Out went any notion of trade union domination. Out went old-style nationalisation. Out went the old tax and spend policies and out went unilateralism. No more being soft on defence. But all that had been effectively achieved by 1997 and Labour had a new edifice... a new set of policies. And the voters liked them. But now it's beginning to look as though the new structure is getting a little shaky. The trade unions want to bring back some of those old policies. I'll be talking about that to the Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid after this report from Paul Wilenius. PAUL WILENIUS: Tony Blair brought the Labour Party out of the political darkness. He created New Labour, to show to the British voters that Old Labour was gone. Out went its negative image as a high tax, anti-war, union-dominated party - never to return. That's what he hoped. Now that highly successful political brand of New Labour may be in danger from its very own party. CONSERVATIVE PARTY ELECTION BROADCAST: New taxes, new job losses, new strikes, new mortgage rises, new lighter sentences and the break-up of the United Kingdom. New Labour - New danger. WILENIUS: In 1997 the Tories tried to demonise Tony Blair. Their controversial campaign implied that behind his appealing smile and image, was the red glow of Old Labour. Although the Demon Eyes' message didn't succeed then, now it may start to resonate as any drift to the Left in the party poses a growing and gathering danger to New Labour. DAVE PRENTIS: I think the Labour Party itself and the government have realised that the New Labour experiment that has gone on now for six years hasn't delivered everything that they thought it would do, and that perhaps they've got to come back to traditional values as well. PHIL WOOLAS MP: If we pretend to ourselves that we've converted the English public to being full blooded socialists then we are deluding ourselves. Slowly and surely, the values in this country's politics are changing, but we haven't got there yet. DENIS HEALEY: I warn you there are going to be howls of anguish from the eighty-thousand rich people. WILENIUS: There were squeals of delight from the party when Labour Chancellor Denis Healey said he would tax the rich until the pips squeak in the nineteen-seventies. It helped create the image of Labour as a party of high taxes, which contributed to four humiliating election defeats. It took nearly twenty years to persuade the electorate it could once again be trusted on tax and the economy. However, this year, Labour's old-style tax policies began emerging from the shadows. There was less stealth and more openness. Chancellor Gordon Brown slapped a penny on tax, through higher National Insurance Contributions, to pay for a better Health Service. And it's not just Gordon who's opening up this political Pandora's box. Even Tony Blair's talking about redistribution of wealth. Here in North Durham Labour Party activists are gathering in the local working men's club to discuss the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. But their mood is markedly different from in previous years, as they now want the Labour leadership to start listening to their views. So what do you all feel when you heard Tony Blair use the "R" word - redistribution of wealth? UNNAMED MAN: I'd certainly have no problem with paying more tax. I mean I feel we earn a living, we demand the services, it's part of our remit to pay for the services and if I can get better education for my children, better services, you know from health care, better anything, I am more than happy to pay my way. WILENIUS: On The Record asked two hundred and two of the four hundred and eleven Chairs in Labour held constituencies if they support further rises in taxes to fund better public services. One hundred and eighty-nine said yes, only six said no. PRENTIS: I think we've definitely won the argument that taxation should pay for public services. And I think the way in which the Labour Party won the last election, on a platform of improving our public services and also paying for it through public expenditure, I think that was accepted by the electorate. JAMES PURNELL MP: The danger of talking about redistribution is that it could be misunderstood on both sides. It could be misunderstood on the Left of the Labour Party, as a green light to go back to tax and spend or on the right, as a return, as a way of attacking the Labour Party on the sort of grounds they used to in the eighties. But actually the challenge and I think the reason that the Prime Minister has done it, is it gives us an opportunity to have that argument, to convince people on the left of the Labour Party that the New Labour agenda is the way of delivering on those values, but also to convince the British country as a whole that the progressive agenda which the Prime Minister is pursuing is the one that they want. WILENIUS: Union leaders filing in to Number Ten for beer and sandwiches with a Labour Prime Minister. Public sector workers on the picket line. The image of unions running the country did Labour terrible damage in the nineteen-seventies. The Winter of Discontent threw Labour ambition on to the political scrapheap for twenty years. New Labour shed that image, but today it's making a comeback. Britain is facing a rash of strikes on the Underground, the railways and even the fire service. Union leaders were feted by Tony Blair at the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party is increasingly dependent on union cash. Now the unions are demanding new laws to improve employment rights and they have the backing of many in the party. When asked - should British trade unions be given employment rights to match other European countries? - one hundred and seventy-six constituency chairs said yes, six said no. PRENTIS: There's no justification whatsoever that our counterparts in the rest of Europe should have better rights and we do really believe that the government should move on employment rights and I will be really surprised, very surprised if the....we don't get approaches from the government to actually rectify some of the anomalies, that we've lived with for many years. WOOLAS: I'm also very conscious that the role of the Labour government and of the New Labour creed is to say to the trade unions, you have your seat at the table, you have a legitimate point of view and we will and have to listen. But if we say you determine the policies, you decide what the law on employment rights is going to be, then we will be throwing the baby out with the bath water and we will go back to the days if we were to go down that course where the electorate said, who's running this country, the people I elected or the trade unions and that's a big, the biggest danger of that lies there for the trade unions. WILENIUS: A defining moment for Tony Blair was the ditching of Clause Four, which committed the party to State ownership of industry. Instead he embraced pro-market philosophy and eventually endorsed the privatisation policies driven through by Lady Thatcher. His controversial move gained critical support from the electorate and traditionalists in the Labour Party accepted it too. But now support for privatisation has been derailed. Railtrack hit the buffers and was reclaimed by the State. There have been renewed calls for re-nationalisation of other privatised industries. And now there are union demands for a moratorium on the use of private companies in the provision of public services, such as health and education. In fact, the Labour leadership faces defeat this week on the use of PFI, or Private Finance Initiatives, to deliver public services through the private sector. UNNAMED MAN: I'm very against PFIs, I think we are building up a problem for the future because they are built for profit. If someone is going to put money in, they want a good return out of it and in future generations this will go on for perhaps sixty years, paying for a hospital at a much higher rate than we would by providing the funding now. UNNAMED WOMAN: I don't fully support everything that Dave was saying, you know being totally opposed to all private finance initiatives because a lot of things that are happening, certainly within the County Durham, could not be happening at all if we weren't using Private Finance Initiative. WILENIUS: When asked should the government call a halt to any further Private Finance Initiative contracts, seventy-nine constituency Chairs said yes, ninety-two said no. And when asked if privatisation had reached its limit, a hundred and forty-three constituency Chairs said yes, forty-one said no. PRENTIS: In our motion we're highly critical of the government policy of using the private companies. We're highly critical of what's happening around PFI and we're very critical about what is happening to our members. Many low paid workers, mainly women workers, are being pushed into private companies so that they can make profits from them. And we'll take that argument into the Conference, we will be pushing our motion to a vote and we expect the Labour Party Conference to go along with the proposal that we're putting forward, that there has to be a major investigation into the use of PFI. NEIL KINNOCK: I really think that the trade unions ought to reconsider their position and say whether they don't want the immediacy of access to investment expenditure and say too, how long they're prepared to wait until these absolutely critically important improvements in hospital building for instance, and in education development, to take place. I'm certainly not willing to wait, I'd rather get on with it, using a combination of private investment and public resources, which is actually what is being done. PRENTIS: Within unions and my union in particular and we are the biggest affiliates of the Labour Party, there are questions being raised about our link with the Labour Party. Questions along the lines of you know, how can you be funding a party which privatises your members? How can you be funding a party and our members be adversely affected by the policies of the government and I think the, you know we do have a selling job within our own union over the, over the coming year to keep the links that we've got. I believe that the union will stay with the Labour Party, but what has happened by the difficulties that we've had over the last six years, it has meant that we've had to review our link and to actually look at the reason for it and whether or not, you know, we ourselves get value for money from that link. WILENIUS: The Ban the Bomb marches of the 1950s and '60s were a visible display of the pacifist streak running deep through the heart of the party. Even Tony Blair was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But the policy of unilaterally scrapping nuclear weapons became an political millstone. It took three electoral defeats before the Labour leader Neil Kinnock was able to ditch the policy which made Labour look weak on defence. Now the pacifist element inside Labour is getting more vocal, this time over the threat of war with Iraq. The anti war protesters were active outside Parliament last week preparing for yesterday's huge demonstration in London. Those calling for peace have the backing of many in the Labour Party. They've also got the support of Labour MPs, Ministers and even members of the Cabinet. The scale and depth of opposition to unilateral action is shown by our survey. Asked if Britain should join the US in a military assault on Iraq, even if there is no clear sanction from the UN, only eighteen constituency chairs said yes, one hundred and sixty-seven said no. CHRIS SMITH MP: If I am asked in Parliament to support the deployment of British troops in Iraq without a specific United Nations' mandate to do so, I would not be prepared to vote in favour of such a measure and I think there would be many others of my colleagues who would share that view. WOOLAS: The biggest danger to any government in a situation which might involve military action in my view, is that if the belief were to take hold, that that government was being directed by the forces within its own political party, rather than what is right for the armed forces and for the country as a whole, then the electorate will punish that government very severely indeed. WILENIUS: The danger for Tony Blair is that the old image of Labour as an anti-war, high tax, union-run party is beginning to creep back. If he takes on the forces gathering behind him, he could end up in a damaging battle with his own party. But if he gives too much ground, he may prove to the voters that the Demon Eyes attack was right all along. HELEN JACKSON MP: I've been around in the party for a long time. I joined in 1962 and helped in Harold Wilson's constituency. And I never really liked the term New Labour, I didn't feel 'new' myself, and so far as I'm concerned, I'm a long standing member of the Labour Party. I think the important thing is that time moves on. KINNOCK: I never used the term New Labour, I just think that there's an eternity of values, which clearly have to be adapted in changing dynamic circumstances, a political party that doesn't adapt to change is a dead party, I think we are witnessing that with the Conservative Party at the present time. And there was a period when the Labour Party, went through such a, a veil of tears, but I've never been bothered by the use of the term new, the adjective new, obviously it had a limited shelf life, as the word new always does. WILENIUS: There have always been those in the Labour Party who considered its re-branding as New Labour to be nothing more than a marketing ploy. But others wanted to abandon the Labour of the past completely and transform the party to its very soul. This week in Blackpool we might find out whether the ghost of Labour's past is about to resurface, and haunt the new face of Labour.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.