Read the mood changes but they are only slight

There is a rhythm to British life: there’s the Gold Cup in March; Tim Henman fails to get beyond the Wimbledon semi-finals in the first week of July; in late September, Tony Blair rides out what is always billed as the most testing challenge of his career to date at the Labour Party conference; and his Conservative counterpart makes incredible claims to be leading a Conservative revival that never seems to materialise.

One day there will be a Tory revival and if we take the Prime Minister at his word, in five years time – or earlier if Labour loses the next election – he will no longer have to run the gauntlet of the Labour Party conference because he will have stood down.

But for the time being, it seems that the contours of our political life are firmly set. For the interesting thing beneath the hum and drum of daily political exchange is that little by little the national consensus has moved. It is most perfectly represented by Tony Blair who, in a recent Economist opinion poll, was the leading British politician who most perfectly represented the plumb centre of British opinion.

But it is a plumb centre that in some key employment and human resources issues has moved to the left – even on immigration and asylum seeking it has moved to the right. Blair retains his ascendancy because of an extraordinary capacity to read this complex public mood and respond to it – a capacity that allows him to escape the consequences of what many (and I include myself) regard as the debacle in Iraq.

At his conference speech, Blair listed his 10-point plan for a third term. What was interesting was that he was more unashamed in promoting work-life balance, parental rights to maternity and paternity leave, universal childcare, a higher minimum wage and even trade union rights than ever before.

In many respects, this was a classic conference speech that could have been made by almost any former Labour leader. The Government will try to hold the line against European legislation limiting the use of temporary workers and tightening up the provisions on opting out of the 48-hour week because it believes both will inhibit the growth of employment. But beyond that it is in the business of trying to promote the quality of life and opportunity of ordinary working people.

Most HR professionals will find little to protest about in this emerging new centre of political opinion, but it needs to be observed nonetheless. Trade unions may get stronger only to the extent that they recruit new members – but predictions of their inevitable decline now look premature. The terms of the Warwick agreement in July between the trade union movement and Labour government will become the new benchmark for industrial relations and employment rights. In this part of the forest, Britain is becoming steadily more Europeanised. Social partnership is on the way in and the prizes will fall to those firms quickest to recognise the new realities.

By Will Hutton, chief executive, The Work Foundation

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