LONDON-Tony Blair’s modernizing project has yet to arrive at the doors of 10 Downing Street, where he has resided since May 2. It is quite remarkable, for anyone accustomed to American-style government security procedures, how easily and informally you can enter the British equivalent of the White House. To get through the iron gates that block the intersection with Parliament Street, you need only pass a couple of lightly armed police officers who check your name against the visitor’s list. Then you walk up and knock on a big black door, which is opened by a kindly older gentleman who takes your coat and puts your bag under a hall table. “You’ll know where it is if I’m not here when you get back,” he says with a nod, before ringing the office of the person you’ve come to interview.
Upstairs, however, the controls are considerably tighter-although everyone still is charming, with broad smiles and offers of tea. Essentially, the rule is that no one who isn’t an official press spokesman is to be quoted, under any guise or attribution, a point made rather firmly considering that the paper in question is a New York weekly unlikely to make many waves on this side of the Atlantic. Such strong message-discipline is, of course, one of the hallmarks of Mr. Blair’s New Labor, but there may be added concern these days because a revolt is under way in Labor’s own ranks against a proposed cutback on welfare payments to single parents.
Like the “welfare reform” adopted by Bill Clinton in 1996, this cut was proposed by the conservative opposition. Mr. Clinton’s implicit rationale for a measure that would remove support from poor women, children and immigrants was electoral necessity; if re-elected, he promised to undo its harshest aspects. With five years to go before the next election here, Mr. Blair can make no such excuses. But he doesn’t need to. Even though the cut in single-parent benefits is one that his party officially opposed before the election, and even though as many as 120 Labor Members of Parliament have protested the bill, there is no chance it will be defeated, and little prospect that it will affect the Prime Minister’s popularity.
In the long run, the split within Labor over welfare issues could be damaging to Mr. Blair. It hasn’t helped that at the same time he is proposing these cuts in welfare, a millionaire member of his cabinet has been revealed as the holder of a large, previously undisclosed interest in an offshore tax shelter.
But for now at least, the optimism and energy that swept Labor into office seem little diminished. Mr. Blair has spent years preparing the British public and, in particular, his own party for his welfare reform plans. The most important thing he has going for him, in contrast to his friend Mr. Clinton, is that everyone knows the Prime Minister is serious about full employment.
Providing jobs to all who can work is the only moral alternative to welfare, but it requires a willingness to subsidize low-skill employment and training even when the economy is in good shape. When Mr. Blair promised to get 250,000 unemployed young people “off benefit and into work,” he also promised to finance jobs and training with a hefty windfall-profits tax on the
Spending alone is not the solution to poverty and unemployment, although it almost always helps. Mr. Blair has just appointed a “social exclusion unit,” which he chairs. Composed of government officials and outside figures such as police officers and social workers, it seeks to coordinate new policies across bureaucratic lines on behalf of Britain’s dispossessed: homeless people, disruptive kids removed from school, poor families languishing in the worst public housing projects.
He points out that the Tories spent more and more each year on welfare, even while inequality and other indicators of social stress grew worse. He has staked his reputation, and Labor’s future, on the idea that the right combination of benefits and incentives-including child care and a decent minimum wage-can break the barriers to full participation in society for the 10 percent of the British population left behind by the burgeoning economy and culture of his super-modern “Cool Britannia.”
If Mr. Blair’s ambitious plans succeed as advertised, they may even offer models for American emulation. After all, the Clinton Democrats have plenty of little ideas; what they apparently need to import are some bigger ones. How about a tax on the excessive salaries and stock options of U.S. executives-say, any amount greater than $10 million-to pay for a new Civilian Conservation Corps?