Delivered By Mr. Chris Mullin Mp To The Joan Maynard / Jack Brocklebank Memorial Lecture At Easingwold, North Yorkshire
I propose tonight to give my analysis of where we are up to - sixteen months into this first Labour Government for eighteen years. I will then conclude by saying a few words about our long-term future. I do so from the perspective of someone who is neither old or new Labour, who recognises that the world has changed and that, whether we like it or not, we have to change with it.
By way of background, there are certain facts of political life which I would respectfully draw to your attention.
FIRST, to make any serious impact our Government must achieve two full terms of office.
SECOND, no Labour Government has ever achieved two full terms of office. All previous Labour governments have been brought down either by their failure to manage the economy or at least by the widespread perception - and this is still our weak spot - that we weren't up to it.
THIRD, as J. K. Galbraith was the first to notice, we live in an age of majority affluence. It is no longer possible, indeed it had not been possible for some years, to win elections simply by mobilizing the less fortunate against the fortunate. When push comes to shove the prosperous can always outvote the impoverished. To begin with it didn't much matter because, even after majority affluence, all the main political parties competed for votes by appealing to the best rather than the basest instincts of the electorate. Margaret Thatcher changed all that. She set about mobilizing the fortunate with unprecedented ruthlessness. Unemployment and the merciless application of market forces were used as weapons to break organised labour. Wealth was massively redistributed from the less fortunate to the more fortunate - by way of income tax cuts, tax reliefs and the sale of public assets at knock-down prices. And this redistribution of wealth was used, literally, to purchase the votes of a fair swathe of the middle classes, who voted (often against their better judgement) with their wallets rather than their hearts.
FOURTH, it has to be said that this was not all Margaret Thatcher's doing. To some extent we played into her hands. The Winter of Discontent - and we can argue till the cows come home about whose fault it was - was a self-inflicted disaster that provided a store of ammunition for our enemies to use against us for a decade or more. My heart sinks when I hear trade union leaders speaking, as one did the other day of a new winter of discontent. Did we enjoy the last twenty years so much that we want to purchase a return ticket to the wilderness? Have we tired of office so quickly that we want to risk throwing it away for another decade or two? If not, then for heavens sake, we must learn to understate our reservations and disappointments rather than reach immediately for the Apocalypse Now button.
An ex-MP said to me the other day that he had never known the Labour Party so depressed or the voters so happy with a Labour government. There are, of course, some signs in the last few weeks that the bubble may be about to burst but by and large it remains the case that the voters are much happier with this Labour government than party members, or at least those who are active. Let it be said at once that this is an improvement on the record of Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s which managed to alienate both party and people with equal facility. Whilst I very firmly do not believe in pandering to the basest instincts, let us never again forget that some account has to be taken of how the world outside of this room feels about us. It is not sufficient to leave here tonight agreeing with each other about everything, if we are unable to carry with us a good majority of those in whose name we hold office.
I come now to this Government and its record so far. I am by no stretch of the imagination a Blair Babe, indeed I have played a part in several small rebellions, but I am not down hearted. A lot has changed for the better over the last sixteen months and, if we keep our nerve, there is every prospect that there will be further and greater progress in the immediate future. We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to acknowledge this.
Do not misunderstand me. Were I Prime Minister (which by some inexplicable oversight I am not), there are things I would do differently.
** I would not have built the Millennium Dome.
** I wish we were not so dependent on spin doctors or the favours of rich men. We won on sleaze, we could lose on sleaze.
** I wish it had not been judged necessary for us to make our Faustian pact with the middle classes over taxation - although I understand the reasons. We canall say with the benefit of hindsight that it wasn't necessary, but only with hindsight. None of us knew that we were going to win the election by 179 seats. At least, if anyone did know, no one told me.
** I wish we weren't quite so friendly with Rupert Murdoch - again, I understand why. The genie is out of the bottle. It is a sad fact of political lifethat it may not ordinarily be possible to win an election in this country with the Murdoch empire ranged against us. We don't necessarily need him onside,but at the very least we need a surly neutrality. To take him on, is a high risk strategy. Whether it is best to leave him alone (bearing in mind that he is 69years old and will not last forever) is a fine calculation and I entirely understand why our political masters have opted for caution rather than risk anheroic defeat - of which there are all too many in the history of our movement.
** I wish we hadn't been quite so quick to endorse the American attack on thepharmaceutical factory in Sudan - particularly since not a shred of evidencehas so far been produced that it was being used to develop chemical weapons.
Is it too much to hope that our new found enthusiasm for the EuropeanCommunity ought at least to allow us to dispense with the groveling servilitythat has traditionally characterized our relationship with the United States.
Having said all that I repeat that I am not down-hearted. Sustainable progress can only be gradual. We have to carry with us people whose interests and whose experience may cause them to take a different view than our own. There is in the Labour movement a long tradition of demanding instant results. This is perhaps best characterized by a slogan with which anyone who has ever attended a demonstration will be familiar:
"What do we want?"
At this point someone shouts some unattainable, non-negotiable demand.
"When do we want it?"
If we are serious about power, we are going to have to get out of the habit of demanding instant results and then accusing anyone who fails to deliver of betrayal. We must recognise that long term, sustainable change can only be achieved gradually and that we are going to have to take with us people who may not be signed up to the absolute certainties to which many of us subscribe.
Let me now enumerate some of the achievements of the past fourteen months which should be welcome to all of us:
1. Within months of taking office £5billion had been raised from the utilities and used to help fund Welfare to Work, education and the Health Service. That is the short answer to anyone who alleged that New Labour did not believe in the redistribution of wealth.
2. A three year rolling programme of public spending has been unveiled which allows for year on year real increases in the area that many of us care about - 4.7% for health, 5.1% for education, 3% for public transport. Let no one claim that New Labour does not believe in public spending.
3. The Welfare to Work programme - targeted at the long-term unemployed - is up and running. It is too early to assess how it will work in the long term, but so far around 19,000 young people have been helped into work, some into jobs that are unsubsidised.
4. The right to belong to a trade union is to be enshrined in law. Okay, at least 40% of the eligible workforce must give their assent, but is that really such an insuperable obstacle for a healthy trade union? Especially when automatic recognition will be accorded to any trade union that already has 50% of the eligible workforce signed up. In many cases no ballot will be necessary.
5. Unfairly dismissed employees will have the access to an industrial tribunal after one year of employment (as opposed to the present two). Okay, it was six months when we left office in 1979, but who can deny that this is a substantial step in the direction of improving job security for many of the most vulnerable?
6. A national minimum wage is to be introduced. Okay, it will initially be set at a disappointingly low level, but that can always be uprated if it is found not to have the disastrous impact that our enemies allege. Maybe it will not make much difference in London or in the leafier parts of the country, but it will make a significant difference to many of the people I represent. And that is only the beginning. The minimum wage will be followed by a tax credit system that will remove entirely from tax any family with an income of up to £220 a week - or around £6/£7 an hour. I repeat: who says New Labour does not believe in redistributing wealth?
7. The Crime and Disorder Bill has put on the statute book a range of new measures designed to tackle the vandalism and yobbery that plagues the lives of so many of our poorest constituents and with which the law has been so ill-equipped to deal. It is not a miracle cure. Nor should it be seen in isolation, but as part of a wider strategy (alongside Welfare to Work and measures to deal with illiteracy and school exclusions) intended to rebuild our shattered social fabric.
8. There is a real prospect of peace in Ireland, despite the recent set-backs. This is not a small achievement.
9. The treaty outlawing the production, storage and use of landmines has been ratified.
10. The overseas aid budget is projected to rise, albeit modestly, for the first time in many years.
There are ten substantial achievements - we can all think of others - for the first sixteen months of this Labour government. Many have yet to bear fruit, of course, but the ground work has been laid. Taken together they should make a substantial improvement to the lives of many of the people we represent. There are others in the pipeline. I anticipate, for example, that within the next few months the water companies will be told that they must provide secondary treatment for sewage before pouring it into the North Sea. Northumbria Water have already been told they must stop doing this in Sunderland and several other sites along the North East coast.
I anticipate, too, that within the next year or two the role of hereditary peers within our system of government will be ended. Labour governments have talked about reforming the Lords since the beginning of the century. This government will do it.
My message is this: before homing in on the disappointments and shortcomings of our government, we should spend a little time celebrating what has been achieved.
Nothing that I say today, however, is intended to suggest that there are grounds for complacency. There is an unhealthy authoritarian streak in New Labour and it needs to be contained. Above all our leaders should bear in mind that they do not necessarily always know best. History records that the judgement of the Led has sometimes proved superior to that of the Leaders. Two examples spring to mind from my experience. The first when, in the teeth of bitter opposition both inside and outside the Cabinet, the last Labour government decided to throw itself on the tender mercies of the International Monetary Fund. We had to wait for Denis Healey's memoirs, thirteen years later, before it could be officially admitted that it had all been a dreadful mistake.
The second occasion on which the judgement of our leaders has demonstrably proved inferior to that of the Led was during the long battles over reselection. The lowest point was reached when 180 members of the Parliamentary Party, including more than half the Cabinet (cheered on, it has to be said, by the entire media), sent a letter to Newham North East Labour Party begging them not to disgrace the Labour Party by deselecting that great socialist, Reg Prentice. No sooner had the letter hit the doormat than Reg Prentice announced his defection to the Conservative Party. For good measure he added that, far from being a socialist, he had been a conservative for several years. That letter with all the signatures disappeared quicker than you could say "extremist". Except that I retain a copy for the historical record.
I mention this, not to rake over the battles of the past, but merely to point out that leaders should not lose touch with those they lead. As for the Led, they too should never entirely exclude the possibility that their leaders may sometimes be right.
I now turn to the future. It is the fashion these days to have mission statements. Here is mine:
Although we live in an age where the market is everywhere triumphant, I still believe that an economic system that consumes the resources of the planet at the rate ours does - and which depends for its success on encouraging ever more intensive consumption - is bound to end badly. Indeed, there are signs, if we look at the collapse of the so-called Tiger economies in Asia, that this may already be happening. We, therefore, have to move towards sustainable development.
We must invest heavily in renewable energy.
We must encourage long-term investment and discourage speculation - perhaps by means of a transaction tax that will penalize the destabilising movement of cast sums of speculative money moving back and forth across the exchanges bringing misery and ruin in its wake.
If, as a result of new technology, the amount of work available is limited, we must devise means of sharing more equitably such work as is available. It is surely barmy to live in an economy where one-third of the potential workforce are worked out of their minds, one third are clinging on by their fingertips and the remaining third have little or nothing to do.
We must also ask ourselves, whether it is in our interests that workers in the poorest countries of the world should be pitted against those who enjoy pensions, sick pay and other benefits that we used quaintly to associate with civilisation? If it is not, perhaps we should be asking whether corporations that relocate their factories in southern China or Indonesia should enjoy the same access to European markets as those who choose to remain here and meet their social obligations. There is more to life than free trade.
We must, starting with our cities, phase out the use of the private motor car, by investing in public transport and encouraging by every possible means the use of the humble bicycle. I happen to believe that the private motor car - polluting the planet, killing world-wide half a million people and injuring 15 million others - is one of the most disastrous products of twentieth century capitalism.
We must phase out industrial agriculture and replace it with a sustainable husbandry that does not depend for its success on the prolonged torture of living creatures. One of the early achievements of our government was to persuade the EC to amend the Treaty of Rome to recognise farm animals as sentient beings rather than agricultural products. Let this be the starting point for a wholly new approach to agriculture.
We must develop an economy less dependent on arms sales - if we are interested in being at the cutting edge, there must surely be a market for anti-landmine technology.
In short, we must build a world where success is measured by happiness and not by per capita income. Where human beings live in harmony with, not in defiance of, nature and with each other.
No country can achieve this in isolation, but there is not reason why Britain under a Labour government cannot play a leading role in the transition to a better world.