The Democratic convention in Chicago? Not exactly. Rather, the Labour party conference in Britain, a gathering of the rank and file to hear the leader of "New" Labour, Tony Blair, describe the policies he hopes will preserve his party's 15-20 point lead in the polls and return it to power after almost two decades in the wilderness. No more talk of socializing the means of production and distribution; no more talk of higher taxes (except perhaps on " millionaires") or of more spending; no more business bashing. New Labour is the party of frugal government. But compassionate. In short, it is Britain's version of Bill Clinton's New Democrats, a party devoted both to compassion and to budgetary probity.
The analogies with America are not happenstance. Start with the fact that Blair and Clinton are both the products of prestigious law schools, that both met their lawyer wives while training for careers neither man seriously intended to pursue, that both of those wives are leftish tough-minded women who hide their light under a bushel of homebaked cookies at campaign time, that both have fantasies of being rock musicians (sax for Clinton, electric guitar for Blair), that both understand that winning is the necessary precedent to accomplishing anything in politics, and that both are formidable and persuasive campaigners.
This is not to deny the differences between the two men. The president is a more or less confessed philanderer; the prime-minister-in-waiting is a genuinely devoted family man and devout Christian. The president tacks right, left, and then right again, depending on the latest polls; the Labour leader has maintained a courageous and steady rightward course to strip his party of its socialist history and loosen the ties that still bind it to the trade unions. The president has a compulsive need to be loved by anyone with whom he is at the moment in contact, whether it is an MTV audience that wants to hear him say a puff or two of dope is no big deal, or a group of conservative Texans who want to hear him say he made a mistake when he raised taxes; the Labour leader is willing to tell the leftists in his party that he will not adopt the red-intooth-and-claw socialism or tax-andspend policies that so many of them still prefer, and he does confront the trade unions with the fact that he will not let them dictate policy even if they do account for half of all the funds that finance his party. In the character race, Clinton comes in a distant second to Britain's wannabe prime minister.
But politics is not only, or perhaps even primarily, about the personal strengths and weaknesses of the leaders of parties. If it were, Bob Dole would be far ahead in the polls and Margaret Thatcher would still be PM. It is about winning elections, and about attempting to use those victories to shape a nation in the image of the victor. And Blair's people see in Clinton a winner worth emulating. In 1992, Blair and nowshadow chancellor Gordon Brown came to America to study the Clinton campaign. So did Philip Gould, Labour's chief pollster. Clinton's New Democrats, says London Times columnist Anthony Howard, "lighted the path" down which New Labour has since traveled.
So Blair traveled to Washington in April for a chat and a photo-op with the president, an important event for a young Labour leader eager to demonstrate to the folks at home the newfound respectability of his party. And deputy Labour leader John Prescott, personally far to the left of his boss but toeing Blair's line, attended the Democratic convention in Chicago at the invitation of his old friend, party chairman Chris Dodd, to act as host at a Labour party reception for the Democratic delegates. George Stephanopoulos is said to be the idol of Peter Mandelson, the Blair guru and spinmeister who is widely credited (and blamed, depending on which Labour delegate you speak to here in Blackpool) with converting Labour from a hard-left party doomed forever to be Her Majesty's loyal opposition into an electable left-of-center party that doesn't throw a fright into middle England. (Among other things, Mandelson replaced Labour's traditional party symbol, the red flag, with a far less threatening red rose.) And the Labour Women's Network, devoted to increasing the number of women -- well, Labour women -- in Parliament, has set up Emily's List UK, unashamedly poaching the name and techniques of its American progenitor.
The similarity in the treatment of women in politics is remarkable. Both Labour and the Democrats seek to increase the number of women representing them in their nations' respective legislatures and are willing to use quotas (though Blair is unenthusiastic about this). Both leaders play down the roles their powerful and intelligent wives will play in their administrations. Bill Clinton's retreat from 1992's "Get two for the price of one" was emphasized when his spin doctors rushed around assuring everyone that the president didn't really mean it when he recently told a television interviewer that his wife would play a large role in unreforming welfare reform if he wins this election. Tony Blair has a similar problem. His wife, Cherie Booth, is a successful, tough-minded barrister who is intensely interested in employees' rights and domestic violence. She once ran for Parliament on a platform far to the left of the one on which her husband now stands. Britons are realistic enough to know that there will be pillow talk in Number 10; but even more than their American brethren, they don't want unelected spouses to run the show.
In what the Sunday Times described as an attempt to portray Cherie Blair "as a Hillary Clinton-like figure who will pull the strings if her husband makes it to Downing Street," Tory prime minister John Major took to having his more traditionally domestic wife, Norma, accompany him on the campaign trail to tell how she grates and freezes stale bits of cheese and uses a tea bag more than once. The point was to contrast loyal homebody Norma with Cherie. Hillary-like, Mrs. Blair responded by reporting herself a devoted knitter. "The quest for ordinariness among politicians' wives is the sine qua non of modern electioneering, so terrified have we become of their bewitching powers and hidden agendas," wrote Lesley White, a columnist for the Sunday Times. "One might have hoped that the late 20th century would demand charisma, brains, and deep political convictions of these women, but no, we seem to want bread-bakers and quilt-makers."
All of this is merely the surface manifestation of important changes in the politics of the Left. For one thing, purist ideologues, who once frowned on the use of "modern" campaign techniques, have learned the game. True, some in the Labour party used the Blackpool conference to call for the dismissal of the party's spin doctors, Peter Mandelson being the primary but not the only target. But they are in a minority. Although still low-key and a bit amateurish by American standards, the Labour conclave was "modern" by British standards -- speeches were interspersed with videos of small businessmen extolling the virtues of Labour's worker-training schemes, and the schedule was followed with some rigor. Most interesting, the podium was arranged so that the delegates present saw the speakers standing against a good old red background, even as the television audience simultaneously saw a neutral backdrop.
More important than technique is substance. The Left knows it has no money to play with. Globalized money markets impose fiscal prudence, with depreciation in the value of a currency the price to be paid for profligacy. And tax increases are politically impossible; George Bush's current status as a private citizen and the Tory party's impending defeat are both proof of that proposition. So shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, after bowing to custom by addressing the delegates as "Comrades," told them he would give no quarter in the battle to maintain a more or less balanced budget and proudly assumed the title of "iron chancellor" (one he may attempt to shed after a quick check of his history books).
Brown knows that Labour has lost election after election because the British middle class fears that, given the power to do so, the party will raise taxes and squeeze the rich, near-rich, and the merely comfortable " until the pips squeak" (as one Labour chancellor is widely believed to have promised to do some years ago). Britons are taxed even more heavily than Americans -- the Tories pledged to lower taxes and instead raised them immediately upon being elected in 1992 -- and they tell pollsters they are willing to pay still higher taxes in order to fund the social services. But while they respond "Certainly" when asked by pollsters, "Would you pay a few pence more in order to reduce queues at the hospitals and overcrowding in the schools?" -- they vote, in the privacy of their voting booths, against anyone who threatens to raise taxes.
Blair and Brown know that they must convince middle-class voters that a Labour government does not mean higher taxes -- except perhaps for a one-time windfall-profits tax on utilities and the closing of "loopholes" used by " millionaires" who pay no tax at all. But they know, too, that they must burnish their liberal (in the American sense) credentials by promising to deliver the social justice that so many Labourites feel was subordinated to the unfettered free-market ideology of Margaret Thatcher (whose strong leadership style Blair openly admires).
These twin imperatives led Labour to call for a change in the way welfare is used, rather than for increased expenditures -- to provide a hand up instead of a handout, to finance education and success rather than pay for failure. And to swallow means-testing, the bugaboo of the old Left. If elected, Labour proposes to end the payment of child benefits to wealthy families -- all British families now receive such payments, regardless of their incomes -- and use the freed-up money to fund more intensive education for students from poorer homes. Sounding like Al Gore, Blair promises to " modernize government" and to deliver "not bigger government, but better government."
But there is still a place for that good old-time religion, egalitarianism. Money now spent to fund education for gifted but poor children, Blair promises to use instead on behalf of all children. The educational system will be revamped to end separation of children based on performance, which Blair calls "educational apartheid" and believes props up the class system (a system he says he despises). Above all, constraints on public spending are driving Britain's Labour party in the same direction they have driven Clinton's Democrats. Like Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is," leftish parties have to tap corporate coffers in order to pay for their social schemes. Clinton pushed legislation that requires corporations to provide family leave and to increase their minimumwage payments; Blair has cut a deal with British Telecom to allow it to enter the television business in return for providing all schools with "free" broadband cable facilities. (In a rhetorical flight that would have made Al Gore and Newt Gingrich beam with pride of authorship, Blair promised the conference that "no child will be without access to a computer." It's not the same as a computer on every desk and two PCs in every home, but close enough.) The cost of these and various other impositions on business will, ultimately, be reflected in higher prices to consumers, a hidden tax. But the operative word is "hidden," and therefore unlikely to produce retaliation at the polls.
Of course, not all of the delegates assembled in this vibrant working-class resort -- with its rollercoaster, ferris wheel, amusement arcades, souvenir shops, and what the local gastronome describes as "endless supplies of fish and chips, burgers, cockles, candy floss, and sticky rock" -- are happy with the conversion of their party from a socialist to a social democratic one. I had to pass through pickets brandishing "Tony Blair is a Tory" placards to get to witness the Labour leader's conference performance. The loudest cheers inside the hall were reserved for the mention of the most leftleaning members of the shadow cabinet: John Prescott, Robin Cook (foreign affairs), and Margaret Beckett (industrial policy).
Not all of Blair's comrades are as tax-averse as he. Whether they will continue to defer to their leader after he has performed his assigned task -- getting them elected -- is an open question. The wise bet is this: Soon after becoming prime minister in May 1997, Blair will have a shootout with his Left, which will want to tax and spend for a variety of schemes. Whose blood will be on the floor of the cabinet room in Number 10 Downing Street, no one cares to predict. But that's a problem for the future. At the moment, the disaffected Labourites have had enough of losing and -- with exceptions here and there -- are holding their fire in order to display the party unity that British voters are thought to value above almost all other virtues. The body of the party is, then, both anatomically and politically correct. Its heart is on the left, its head is on (the) right, and it is speaking with one voice -- Tony Blair's.
For now, all is sweet unity. Blair's specific promises are of less relevance to his electoral prospects than are the weaknesses of his Tory adversaries. Just as Clinton's strong performance in the polls is unaffected by his weak performance in office, so Blair's likely triumph next May will not depend primarily on what he says or does between now and then (assuming that he sticks broadly to his no-new-taxes pledge and maintains his grip on his party). For Blair is blessed with a Tory opposition devoid of ideas after 17 years in office, badly split between those who want to grow the welfare state and those who want to shrink the size and role of government in order to cut taxes. The Conservatives are also busy quarreling over whether to participate in the emerging federal Europe, are beset with sexual and financial scandals, and are led by an earnest but colorless prime minister.
If Blair can remain unthreatening to the middle class and continue to convince his party that his version of democratic socialism -- fiscally responsible, yet humane -- satisfies their egalitarian yearnings, he will soon have an opportunity to fulfill the "covenant with Britain" to which he committed himself in Blackpool. Yes, a Gingrichian covenant to deliver a Clintonian program using a Gore-like reinvented government. Who's the colony now?