Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Blair’s balance sheet

Denis MacShane clocks up the gains of Tony Blair’s decade in power

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I am receiving a number of emails and requests for a balance sheet of the 10 years of Tony Blair’s government. Of course, political interpretation is open to all and after 10 years under any national leader there are mistakes and faults that can be seen.

I remain a Labour MP and someone on the left. For more than a century, the left has had great difficulties in working out what it needs to do under the condition of democracy – that is persuading a majority of voters to elect a party with a left programme.

Few parties of the left have stayed in power in Europe for more than a single parliamentary term. Labour was evicted from power in 1951, 1970 and 1979 having lost the confidence of the people.

Parties that have stayed longer in power have had to make compromises. The Swedish social democrats for example supported a deal made between the Swedish unions and employers in the 1930s which ruled out strike action. In 1945, Swedish social democracy was ruthless in expelling all militant left-wingers (mainly communists) from the unions and the party.

Similarly, Willy Brandt was branded as a poodle of Washington in the 1960s because he stood firm against Sovietism. His own son took part in the 1968 student uprising and denounced his father. But Brandt, like his even more pro-American successor Helmut Schmidt, undertook a massive modernisation of social democracy and shaped a new compromise with German capitalism.

Francois Mitterrand is remembered for having been president for 14 years. But the French Socialists were always evicted from parliamentary power after five years in office – in 1986 and again in 1993. Lionel Jospin could not convert his five years in office, 1997 to 2002, into a presidential or parliamenty majority.

Felipe Gonzalez led Spain from 1982 to 1996, but did so by defying his party’s socialist traditions: leading Spain into Nato and making the Spanish economy one of the most liberal and open to foreign investment in the world. His successor, the current Spanish PM Zapatero, appears to be following the same policy of economic liberalisation.

Blair is the only Labour leader and prime minister to have managed to hold on to power in successive elections. He has applied the age-old rule of democratic left politics which is to find a compromise between economic efficiency and social justice. Labour, like all European parties of the left, needs to sustain a material base – that is to create jobs, promote company formation, and on the basis of enhanced government revenue invest in the social sphere.

But the crucial lesson Blair (and Brown and other intelligent ministers) learnt is that you cannot spend on society what you have not earned in the economy. In the past, Labour (and other European left parties) put society ahead of materiality. Labour has sought to keep the two in equilibrium. Sometimes this balancing act has led to tumbles but overall, since 1997, Labour has followed the Swedish or Brandt-Schmidt or Gonzalez recipe of acting socially by thinking economically.

Labour in the 1960s and 1970s was seen as presiding over the ‘sick man’ of Europe. Labour under Blair has been a source of admiration, wonderment, and because of his unflinching pro-Americanism, hate and loathing from the European left. As Alain Bergouinioux, one of the French socialist party’s historians and a PS national secretary put it: ‘Jospin talked left and acted right. With Blair it’s the other way round.’

But no other centre-left leader since the end of communism inaugurated a new world historical era has managed to stay in power in a G8 nation with such success in keeping a parliamentary majority.

That is why both Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolone Royal have confessed their admiration for Blair. Sarkozy launched his campaign by coming to London to be seen with the most-successful leader of a major EU country. Royal’s admiration for Blair was stronger in 2006 as she sought to win support to be the Socialist candidate. In order to pull in the anti-Atlanticist and anti-EU left in France she veered leftwards from the beginning of 2007 onwards. Now she is trying to move back to the centre-ground to capture the 18 per cent of the French votes that went to Francois Bayrou, a big fan of Blair and Blairism. Mme Royal is trying to do the splits and have a foot in the anti-EU, anti-modern economics camp of Arnaud Montbourg and Henri Emmanuelli, and a foot in the modernised, reformist camp of Michel Rocard, Bernard Koucnher and Dominique Strauss Kahn.

Doing the splits that wide is not a pretty sight. Blair has always refused to walk both sides of the left street. He has insisted from day one as leader and then PM that a party of the left in government must be pro-European and pro-American, open to world trade, and ruthless in shaping economic, fiscal and other policies so that a strong material base to social investment is also sustained. He has also broken with much of the liberalism associated with the 1968 generation. On Islamist terror he has broken with the multiculturalist approach that could see no wrong with evil done in the name of a god.

On social behaviour and criminality Blair has identified with the victims – often working class, vulnerable and poor – rather than blaming the ‘system’ and finding excuses for bad behaviour. But Blair has also supported strongly women’s rights and gay rights as well as supporting the rationality of science over the prejudices of religious fundamentalists. In that sense, Blair’s Britain is at odds with Bush’s Republican Christian conservative America.

The willingness to remove Saddam rather than leave him in power as Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and the British liberal intelligentsia were willing to accept has placed Blair as someone close to Bush. On Iraq that is true. But across most other global policy areas – from Kyoto, to supporting stem cell research and abortion – Blair is a rational European social democrat. I list below some headings of Labour’s achievements in power.

The economy
Labour has created an economy better prepared for the challenges and opportunities of globalisation than any in the western world. Showing that economic competence and social justice go hand in hand, Britain has weathered global economic storms which have knocked past governments off course. Labour recognised that we need to prepare for change, not try to resist it, and have adopted an open not closed approach to globalisation. The result has been a record and sustained period of growth with low inflation, rising living standards and high employment.

FACT: Longest period of growth for 200 years with over 2.5 million more in work

Labour has put in place a framework to help people off welfare rather than become dependent upon it – a move from a passive to an active welfare state. Those whom need support receive it on the basis of an active partnership where the citizen makes clear commitments in return for the help they receive.

FACT: Slashed the cost of failure- we’re spending £5bn less on unemployment than we did in 1997

Labour is establishing a genuinely post-comprehensive schools system which has ended the historic trade-off between equity and excellence. The differing needs of pupils and parents are now reflected in the diversity of provision with safeguards to ensure fairness and the interests of society at large. The age where communities accepted that their local schools were destined to fail is over. As a result, expectations of parents, especially in the most disadvantaged areas, have risen and high quality education is no longer the reserve of the privileged few. Our support for teachers and investment in infrastructure has seen the prestige of the profession increase, drawing new recruits who once would never have considered teaching as a profession. In our universities we have put in place a new funding model which will secure their future for a generation, re-establish their reputation for excellence across the globe and enable them to serve more students than ever before.

FACT: The proportion of eleven years olds reaching Key Stage 2 Level 5 in English have doubled and nearly doubled in Maths. There are now 7 times as many secondary schools where more than two thirds of pupils get 5 good GCSEs

Labour has improved care across the board by ending the era of uniform, monolithic provision in the NHS, putting patients and their needs in the driving seat. While a decade ago the very survival of the NHS was questioned now the debate centres on the quality of the care offered. Labour has invested to reflect the changes in healthcare which means a greater demand for specialist care in centres of excellence but more scope as well for local services through the extension of community facilities. Labour has put new incentives into the system and devolved power to the front-line and communities to continue accelerating progress. Thanks to this government, high quality care on the NHS is no longer the preserve of the lucky or the well connected but genuinely universal, still free at the point of use and focussed on those who need it most.

FACT : Hitting the 18-week target will see an end of waiting for treatment as we traditionally know it.

Labour has sought to make parents and their children the new frontier of a modern welfare state. Whether through financial help via tax credits, new facilities like Sure Start or updating legislation to introduce paternity leave and extending maternity leave, we have made genuine support for families a core role for the state.

FACT: Extending paid maternity leave from three to nine months and introducing paternity leave.

Law and order
Labour recognises that liberty in the modern world needs to protect the rights of the law-abiding majority as well as respect the rights of the individual. Labour is overhauling the criminal justice system to bring it up to the standard expected of any public service. Through investment in law enforcement, the introduction of a new suite of powers and targeting the offender not the offence, crime has fallen during this government’s time in office.

FACT: Crime down 35 per cent. Taken action on anti-social behaviour. Record police numbers – up 14,000.

Immigration and asylum
Labour has modernised the system to ensure that we can we manage migration rather than simply respond to it. Asylum has been strengthened, claims are down and economic migrants are now deterred from misusing the system. Whilst acknowledging the benefits which immigration can bring to our economy and culture, Labour has introduced new rules to ensure that it is controlled.

FACT: Applications down 75 per cent, removals more than doubled. Successfully met the tipping the balance target.

Public realm
Labour has restored our infrastructure, raised the aspirations of public servants and modernized the state. Government funding, coupled with private investment, is transforming the way people live, work and interact with public and cultural services. The public landscape of Britain has changed, this will be seen as the era when the public space was brought up to date after decades of decline.

FACT: 14,000 more police officers, around 85,000 more nurses, over 35,000 more doctors, and 36,400 more teachers

Labour has supported a renaissance in our urban centres. Our cities which flourished in the 19th century fell into decline at the end of the 20th. They are now reborn. These urban areas have been regenerated thanks to economic stability, increased employment and devolved decision-making.

FACT: Urban ‘eyesores’ turned into assets in cities like Birmingham; a new breed of science cities with high tech growth, such as Bristol; Liverpool, the European Capital of Culture 2008, with its waterfront regenerated; Manchester transformed with strong leadership; Newcastle now home to iconic new buildings.

In an age where there has been increasing anti-science sentiment, Labour have been a pro-science government. Labour has increased investment, offered more political support and more protection through the courts. Labour recognises that success in the future rests with those countries able to support scientific research successfully and translate research and innovations into new products and services.

FACT: Investment in science trebled

Open and outward culture
Labour has helped shape a new spirit of optimism and confidence. Opportunities, which were once the preserve of the privileged and well connected, are now open to all. Through changes to legislation and culture we have engendered a more tolerant society through civil rights for same-sex couples or more women in public life. Every aspect of society from businesses to Parliament more accurately reflects the nature of modern Britain. We are fairer, more prosperous and in ways which are both definable and indefinable a happier and bolder nation. We are proud of our past but not wedded to it. Labour’s success in winning the Olympics for London in 2012 illustrated this perfectly.

FACT: Introduced civil partnerships and women MPs more than doubled. Olympics welcomed back to Britain once again.

Social exclusion
Labour has tackled child and pensioner poverty, raised living standards and reduced inequality. The National Minimum Wage played a crucial role ensuring everyone receives a living wage. Labour has developed a new agenda to target help and support on those families struggling not just with poverty, but with low aspiration, drug abuse or mental health problems.

FACT: 600,000 kids lifted out of poverty.

The single biggest shift of power out of Whitehall, since the 19th Century, has taken place under this Government. Labour has provided communities with the power and accountability to control their own destiny. London has lead the way for mayors to reinvigorate our cities. Our constitution has been brought up to date to reflect the reality of the 21st century. It’s a much fairer, open and honest system of government.

FACT: Devolution for Scotland and Wales. Scrapped hundreds of hereditary

Northern Ireland
Labour has helped bring to an end the Troubles which have disfigured Northern Ireland for decades. Through the personal commitment of key political leaders, they have converted the concepts of the Good Friday Agreement into reality. This has delivered a society where power is genuinely shared and one in which the police are supported and the rule of law respected.

FACT: Power sharing to resume on 8th May 2007, with 100,000 more in work and unemployment halved.

Labour has laid the foundations for a modern transport system, which our economy and society need. Through investment and reform, we have enabled more people than ever to travel while taking steps to encourage more use of public transport.

FACT: More rail passengers than for 50 years and bus use increasing year on year for first time in decades

Rural affairs
The countryside and those who live there have been supported by this government through both support for traditional public services and more bespoke assistance. The problems of foot and mouth shone a bright light on the needs of those living and working in the countryside, since then even more has been done to ensure that rural areas are able to thrive and evolve.

FACT: The UK now has the cleanest rivers, beaches, drinking water and air since the industrial revolution

Labour has supported a flowering of British arts and culture. Britain is enjoying a cultural renaissance, a Golden Age of arts. Everything from our education system to our economy has been enriched by this progress.

FACT: Core funding for the arts up 73 per cent in real terms – 34 million additional visits to our national museums since they became free.

Foreign policy
Labour has pursued progressive values successfully in an interdependent world. Britain is engaged in the world on both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ issues. Whether on the ‘hard’ challenges of Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan or Iraq, or on the ‘soft’ issues of global poverty, climate change and trade, Labour foreign policy has been values driven, activist and multilateralist. Our stance has been open not closed to the world. Our influence and access across the globe has increased with Britain helping to set the agenda rather than follow it.

FACT: Our G8 Summit in 2005 delivered a bold package for Africa that included $50bn extra aid a year, $50bn debt cancellation and universal access to AIDS treatments, and established a dialogue on climate change that included China and India.

We have placed Britain at the heart of Europe on our own terms. Britain now plays a leading role in a transformed Europe – instead of carping from the sidelines. The debate in Europe is now widely acknowledged to be inspired and indeed, it might be said, following what has been achieved in Britain in the last 10 years. In the previous forty years Britain was seen as a model to be avoided elsewhere in Europe. To the frustration of some other nations this is no longer the case.

FACT: Britain championed the EU’s expansion from 15 to 27 member countries since 1997

Labour has helped ensure that Africa has a voice and a place at the top of the international agenda. Africa is now a central feature of all international discussions – not least of the G8 plus 5. The developed world works in partnership with Africa. It is a continent which has more hope now than it did ten years ago.

FACT: UK has increased aid from £2.5 to £6.6 billion since 1997

Climate change
Labour has given a lead at home and internationally on tackling this threat. The debate has moved on from questioning the science to agreeing how we react to what it is warning. Every major industrial country is now sitting around the table to discuss collective action.

FACT: Negotiated Kyoto. UK only country in world that will achieve double
its Kyoto target.

Labour party
In 1992 serious commentators suggested that Labour could never win another general election. Fifteen years on the party has won three in a row – and will continue in power if it sticks to its principles. Labour in office has combined objectives which had once been considered competing opposites: a strong economy and investment in services; being tough on criminals while helping offenders turn their back on crime; improving public services and supporting the workforce. In doing so the essence of third way politics is now guiding principle for all mainstream British political parties.

FACT: Won three elections in a row for the first time in its history

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Denis MacShane MP

is a former Europe minister. His biography of François Mitterrand was published in 1982, and in 1985 he wrote a Fabian pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour

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