The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 13, 1997 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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On September 25, America's conservatives gathered in the capital of the world's only superpower to contemplate their navels in the hope of discovering why they have recently been denied power in Washington, London, and Paris. Almost simultaneously, the British Labour party gathered in this Channel-side town for its first party conference (convention, to Americans) since taking the reins of government in the name of "radical centrism."

To travel from Washington to Brighton at twice the speed of sound is disorienting in ordinary times; if you move from the depths of conservative despair to the heights of left-of-center triumphalism in a day's time, as I did, you might go mad. The conservatives in Britain and America have won almost every ideological battle worth fighting. In America, they have sold the idea that government budgets should be balanced; in Britain, they have forced Labour to accept the spending limits of the now-departed Tory government and to recognize, as Prime Minister Tony Blair did in his speech to his party, that "this country, any country, will not just carry on paying out more in taxes and getting less . . . . Hold debt down . . . . Earn before you spend." Margaret Thatcher couldn't have said it any better.

In America, conservatives have forced a reluctant president to end "welfare as we know it"; in Britain, the prime minister told his party last week that he planned a "fundamental reform of our welfare state . . . . The new welfare state must encourage work, not dependency . . . . A decent society is not based on rights. It is based on duty." Youngsters must get jobs (subsidized by the state to the tune of about $ 100 a week), go back to school, sign up for job training, start a business, or get off the welfare rolls. And single mothers with school-age children must "at least visit a job center, not just stay at home waiting for the check every week."

In America, no one any longer thinks the government can do things better than the private sector, forcing a Democratic president to read an obituary for big government; in Great Britain, the Labour party, once pledged to socialize all the means of production and distribution and to take over the commanding heights of industry, is now committed by its leader to at least partial privatization of the country's pension system, as part of its search for new functions to privatize.

Finally, conservatives have persuaded voters that crime, whatever its causes, is simply intolerable, forcing a Democratic president to promise to put 100,000 new police officers on the streets, and a Labour prime minister to declare, "I back zero tolerance for crime." Indeed, one of the best applause lines of Blair's speech here -- other than the promise to do away with the voting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords -- was one that would warm the heart of Rudy Giuliani and startle the ACLU: "To those who say it's all a threat to our civil liberties, I say the threat to civil liberties is of women afraid to go out at night, and pensioners afraid to stay at home . . . ."

So Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, a New Democrat president and a New Labour prime minister, pledged to push forward the programs of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Yet conservatives convene in Washington to weep, while 3, 000 delegates to a convention of a left-of-center party convene in Brighton to rejoice -- proving, I suppose, that winning the electoral battle trumps winning the ideological battle every time.

Certainly, the hard political fact that Labour met as a government-in-power rather than as an oppositionin-waiting for the first time since 1979 tended to keep battles over ideas and policies to a minimum. Brighton was a place for celebration -- what one delegate called a "coronation conference." Still, what little ideological warfare did break out proved that old Labour is not prepared to swap its beer and ale for the champagne and chardonnay preferred by Blair's New Labour just yet.

In a key battle for a seat on the National Executive Committee, a diminished but consequential Labour-party policy organ, unreconstructed leftist Ken Livingstone (known as "Red Ken") defeated Peter Mandelson, the Blair intimate credited with fashioning the policies and electoral techniques that propelled Labour to its overwhelming majority in Parliament earlier this year. "It's a weird party that defeats the man who got it elected and elects the man who favors policies that kept it in opposition for two decades," one observer told me.