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.
Blair's people tried to explain the defeat as a personal repudiation of Mandelson, who is widely seen as arrogant, rather than as a rejection of Labour's rightward slide. Mandelson, who remains Blair's most influential adviser, dutifully played along with the notion that his defeat was a personal rejection rather than a repudiation of his boss's policies by professing to have learned some much-needed humility.
But in private even the staunchest Blair supporters conceded that Livingstone's victory proves that the old Left is not prepared to go quietly into the night. In addition to defeating Mandelson, old Labour had the votes to return two of the Left's leftest stalwarts, Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbott, to the same council. And the Labour-party conference hall is still a congenial place for Britain's "loony Left" to set out their stalls. The Committee for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) sponsors a meeting aimed at diverting spending from defense -- at a bit more than 2 percent of GDP, it is already at its lowest level since the 1930s -- to education and health care and calls for "Protecting the Earth from NATO." EMILY's List (there is a British branch) combines with other women's organizations to celebrate the election of 101 Labour women to Parliament, to applaud the appointment of a "minister for women," and to promote a "Girl's Bill of Rights" to improve prospects for the "girl child."
The ubiquity of left-wing advocacy groups aside, this convention was a Blair triumph. When Labour last convened as a governing party, then-prime minister James Callaghan pleaded with the unions for wage restraint; they turned him down and launched a series of strikes that saw garbage pile up in the streets of London, unburied bodies pile up all around the country, power cuts that reduced factories to three-day work weeks -- all part of a "winter of discontent" that eventually brought Margaret Thatcher to power.
Now the unions are tamed. Their voting power in the Labour party, already sharply reduced, was curtailed still further at last week's conference. Blair has told them that he will guarantee them the right to call representation elections if more than half the workers want them, but will not repeal Thatcher's restrictions on picketing and boycotts or the law requiring a membership vote before a union can call a strike. And he has spent more time with Britain's industrial barons than with its union barons, in an attempt to make his party business-friendly.
This wooing of business is part of a broader effort to position Labour as the party of all the people, one that unites the nation after years of Thatcherite divisiveness. After reaping the benefits of privatization, the reining-in of union power, and the market-opening reforms of Thatcher's Tories, Britain's voters decided they wanted something less harsh than the free-market capitalism that Thatcher espoused and that brought them the prosperity (almost full employment, low inflation) that they now enjoy -- in contrast to their European counterparts.
Enter Blair and his Thatcherism-with-a-human-face, a sort of vague communitarianism-cum-egalitarianism mixed with religiosity, an understanding of the limits of what government can accomplish, and a conviction that society's obligation to help the truly needy is matched by the obligation of all others to find work. The appeal of this brew is demonstrated by the fact that tens of thousands of young, middle-class Britons have joined Blair's Labour party, something they would not even contemplate in the lefter days of his predecessors.
The presence of this new governing class in Brighton is a visible sign of just how new New Labour is -- more slim young apparatchiks than beer-bellied union bosses, more media manipulators than committed ideologues, more cell- phone addicts than pamphleteers. The one link between these otherwise disparate groups seems to be tobacco. New Labour's official policy is Hillary- esque in its purity: Stamp out demon tobacco, which Blair told the delegates creates "avoidable illnesses" costing the National Health Service millions every year. But policy is not practice. Nothing could clear the smoke from the spacious but ill-ventilated lobbies and meeting rooms of the grand Victorian hotels that housed this conclave. Indeed, ample supplies of cigarettes were on offer at many of the private receptions held throughout the week.
Nor could anything clear the mist that shrouds the social attitudes of New Labour. Blair, whose stated goal is reelection five years hence, is acutely aware of the bad stumble Bill Clinton took when he chose the issue of gays in the military as one of his first causes. He knows, too, that his wife Cherie's affinity for such causes has his enemies poised to strike should it seem that she has persuaded him to adopt what some call "advanced attitudes" on social issues. This awareness must have been heightened by the fact that on the very day on which the prime minister addressed the conference, Cherie, a lawyer, learned that she had won a precedent-setting suit in the European Court of Justice, which ruled that lesbian partners are entitled to the same travel perks given to heterosexual partners.
His wife's positions notwithstanding, Blair considers himself not only a solid family man and deeply religious, but a modernizer. Hence his dilemma, revealed in his speech. "We cannot say we want a strong and secure society when we ignore its very foundation: family life," he told the delegates, assuring them that "every area of this government's policy will be scrutinized to see how it: affects family life." There is to be a ministerial group to "drive . . . through" policies to strengthen Britain's families.
And yet, and yet. Although bemoaning the "huge social problem" created by Britain's 100,000 teenage pregnancies every year, Blair reassured the less hidebound in his party, "This is not about preaching to individuals about their private lives . . . . I am a modern man leading a modern country."
Confused? So is the British press. The Daily Mail, one of the tabloid newspapers that traditionally support the Tories, ran a page-one story under the headline "Blair's crusade to save the family." A few days earlier, the Sun, a leading Thatcherite tabloid that threw its substantial clout to Labour in the last election, ran a column under a headline that asked the question, "Are Blair and Hague Conspiring to Destroy the Family?"
It seems that William Hague, the new Tory leader, has outraged Lady Thatcher and Conservative-party traditionalists by deciding to share a room with his fiancee at this week's Tory-party conference in Blackpool. Sun commentator William Oddie notes that Hague has already voted to reduce the homosexual age of consent to 16 and participated (with Blair) in a gay-pride march in London. "The message is that if the Tory party expects William Hague to lead them back to traditional family values," Oddie writes, "they had better think again."
There is, of course, no conspiracy. But that the prime minister is torn on the question of just how to define the family there can be little doubt. One of his leading advisers has long lived in unwedded bliss with the mother of his two children; he sees no reason why the prime minister should condemn such arrangements. The gays in his entourage argue that enduring homosexual and lesbian relationships impose no costs on society and therefore are a private matter, of no concern to elected officials. The real problem, say these advisers, is the large number of never-wed mothers whose offspring constitute so large a portion of the lawless and jobless.
But Blair's entourage also includes traditionalists. They have no per se objection to gay or enduring alliances between unmarried couples, but are arguing to the prime minister that if he sanctions anything but the married- couple-plus-children arrangements that have always constituted "the family," he will be accepting the notion that living arrangements are mere lifestyle choices of no concern to government. That would make it difficult to mount a credible crusade against the scourge of teenage pregnancy and the social problems it creates.
In the end, Blair seems to have come down on the side of those who would have him show tolerance for all structures save single motherhood. Knowledgeable sources advise me that Mandelson, whose obsessive desire to control every aspect of the prime minister's public image is legend among British journalists, was consulted before Dorian Jabri, the Iraqi lover of Chris Smith, the first openly homosexual cabinet member, gave a lengthy interview to the Times of London. Jabri used the interview, which was accompanied by photos of the happy couple posing in their homey study amid a formidable collection of books, to depict the relationship as durable and satisfying.
But the battle for Blair's heart and head is not over. Traditionalists remain encouraged by the fact that Blair has seen and railed against the devastating consequences of teenage pregnancy. Indeed, in his speech he termed those pregnancies part of a national "crisis."
Blair has said he wants to make Britain into "the best place to bring up children, the best place to lead a fulfilled life, the best place to grow old. " He has to decide whether to convert his own tolerance into policies that elevate so-called alternative lifestyles to a coequal status with the traditional family. No easy decision for a modern man who also happens to be a deeply religious, traditional, happily married father of two.
Irwin M. Stelzer, a frequent contributor to these pages, is director of regulatory policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.