Who is the more conservative politician -- Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris of Ontario or Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain?
The answer is far from obvious. Compare the records of the Harris and Blair governments on education and welfare reform.
One hallmark of a genuine conservative is a marked preference for competitive private enterprise over state-run monopolies. Yet under the Harris Conservatives, the public and separate school systems in Ontario retain essentially the same monopoly over education funding that they enjoyed under the previous Liberal and New Democratic Party governments.
In contrast, the Blair Labor government has invited multi-national companies to bid on contracts to run dozens of publicly funded schools in designated education zones where students are achieving poor results. The private firms who undertake to run these schools will be allowed to set their own pay scales for teachers; operate without the supervision of local education authorities (the English equivalent of school boards); and opt out of the national curriculum devised by the education ministry.
Blair expects that these private schools will achieve better results on standard tests of student achievement than their public-sector predecessors. Any school that fails to measure up by this criterion will not have its contract renewed.
Who could oppose such a progressive experiment in educational reform? The teachers' unions, of course. Yet earlier this month, representatives of the largest teachers' union in Britain -- the National Union of Teachers (NUT) -- voted down a motion to oppose the government's plans for privatizing the operation of poorly performing public schools.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, hailed the vote as a victory of "realists" over left-wing radicals that has served to enhance the NUT's status as a "sensible and serious trade union". By this standard, what can be said for the teachers' unions of Ontario? Imagine the uproar they would make if the Harris government were to try to privatize a few dozen of the province's worst performing publicly funded schools.
In addition to shaking up the educational system, the Blair government has undertaken the most sweeping reforms to the British welfare system since it began 50 years ago. "We want to rebuild the system around work and security," says Blair. "Work for those who can; security for those who cannot."
Like Harris, Blair is concerned about soaring rates of welfare dependency among employable recipients. In a Green Paper released last month, Britain's welfare reform minister, Frank Field, pointed out that, "Almost one in five working age households have no breadwinner compared to less than one in ten in 1979."
To help alleviate this problem, the Blair government has introduced a working families tax credit that will make employment more financially attractive for welfare recipients. In addition, Field plans to improve child care and job training programs for low-income workers. "The Government's aim," he says, "is to deliver services of such high quality that there would be simply no reason why people should not take them up."
Regardless, the Blair government is not relying on incentives alone. Starting this month, all employable youths aged 18 to 24 who have been unemployed for at least six months have a choice among four workfare and learnfare options. "For those who do not wish to take up offers of help," says Field, "there will be no 'fifth option' of simply remaining on benefit."
To generate jobs for these young adults, the Blair government is offering employers £60 a week for six months for each young person they take on, plus a £750 training grant. This might not be the best approach. It could have the perverse effect of making it more difficult for other workers to land and retain a job.
Nonetheless, it's clear that Britain's Labour government has embraced workfare in principle, if not in name. Why is that? Have Blair, Field and all the other erstwhile socialists in the British Labour Party suddenly become heartless, cruel, greedy conservatives who no longer care about the poor? Of course not.
Members of the Blair government simply recognize what should have long been evident to Canadian Liberals and socialists as well -- that there is nothing enlightened and compassionate about hugely expensive welfare and employment insurance systems that serve to trap able-bodied recipients in chronic, moral-destroying dependence on government handouts.