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New Labour

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

New is a very old adjective. For instance, one of the first two Oxford Colleges is New. New has mostly been a descriptive word. In recent years the capacity of the term has vastly expanded, way beyond mere description, to give value, raise hopes, create expectations and so on. 'New' has been a defining word of the latter half of the 1990s and into this decade.

In around 1994 the expression 'New Labour Party' was coined. This year the party celebrates its 100 anniversary, so there's scarcely anything new or young about it. Of course, new here represents the will to change: to grab power, to revive the party and the country. The implication is that one can hold onto the essentials of the old and bring in something different, add fresh elements, change aspects of a party's policy. Well, make it something New.

At around the same time we had the terms 'New World Order', and of course most recently the 'New Millenium'. However, nothing beats the Labour Party's deployment of this term. With every photo-op one could see New before other words: 'new Wales', 'new Sotland', 'new Parliament'. New is a kind of mantra. This not unexpected given how much the party has learned from advertising and media gurus who must have taught them that the more one repeats a phrase the more the world will believe it.

So what really is New Labour? There are two key elements that can be addressed here: one concerns 'the market', the other its view of 'community'. Firstly, equality is redefined so that it does not entail dramatic narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. Instead, 'true equality' now means each individual has 'equal worth'. Labour ideologues argue that differences in wealth is only one form inequality takes and progress on other fronts - between men and women, for instance - are as important to address.

They point to the real progress on these other fronts. (The controversy over Section 28 should be seen in this light.) So on the economic front New Labour is something like the Old Tories in that it has embraced a kind of 'market liberalism'. This is the 'third way': way between the social democracy of old Labour and a full embrace of market forces. In the process rich and poor are redefined. The inequalities resulting from the market are to be addressed by a state that seeks to reduce differences in starting positions, in opportunities. Redistribution through a minimum wage and higher spending on the poor are moves in this direction but the figures are small, working family tax credits, child benefits, and so on

Secondly, a strong notion of community is a key feature of New Labour. Blair believes that we are all linked by moral obligations, not self-interest. Communities should be given space to organise themselves on the basis of what binds them. The state should facilitate the strengthening of community ties. There is a move from seeing the state as the dispenser of welfare to community performing a good deal of this function. Communities could look after their own key spheres such as education and cultural activities, and ever more areas of life. Devolution and local democracy are significant aspects of this view of community. (But the leadership is not itself magnanimous in its own party, look at its heavy-handed style in London and Wales.)

New Labour's view of community has important implications for Muslims in Britain. The government's attention to Muslim issues - a big change compared with life under the Tories until 1997 - is because of this 'communitarian' ethos. It is probably not because Muslims are themselves of significance. Growing coherence in Muslim organisation at the national level should however not be underestimated.

Muslims should use this opportunity to assert their demands. There is no equal regard for a good deal of Islamic practices and in terms of the new understanding of equality explained above we should demand equal respect to be inscribed law and protected by state agencies and resources. But we should know that while we make claims to have greater respect for our values and institutions that other aspects of New Labour's policies may in fact not deliver the bliss to the poor - of which Muslims are a substantial part.