Labour needs to remember its considerable achievements in power, believes Giles Radice
When on the morning of 12 May 1994 the tragic news broke of John Smith’s death, it became almost immediately obvious that the charismatic shadow home secretary, Tony Blair, then only 41, would become his successor. Under Blair’s leadership, the Labour party went on to dominate British politics for many years; and between them the New Labour partnership of Blair and Gordon Brown was to give the party its longest period in power in its history. Recent discussions of New Labour have focused on its blemishes. It has been seen primarily against the backdrop of: the rows between the two principals and their respective entourages which from 2005 fatally weakened the government; the drama of the Iraq war; and the impact of the world recession. The 20th anniversary of Blair’s accession to the leadership provides an opportunity for a reassessment which not only considers its failures but also takes account of its very considerable achievements.
The first thing to understand about New Labour was that it was a project for winning power and retaining it. That was hardly surprising. Apart from the six years of Attlee governments and the Wilson-Callaghan administrations in the late 1960s and 1970s, Labour had been in opposition. One should not forget that Blair’s landslide victory of 1997 followed four successive election defeats and 18 years of impotent opposition. The two young men, Blair and Brown, with the assistance of their ‘third’ man, Peter Mandelson, were determined to make the Labour party a party of power. By winning three successive elections, the Blair-Brown combination enabled the Labour party to introduce a raft of economic, social and liberal reforms which really made a difference.
New Labour’s approach was revisionist – that is to say, while retaining Labour’s values, it believed in applying them in a changing world. One of Blair’s first acts as leader was to revise Clause IV of the party constitution, which committed the party to a massive extension of public ownership, and to replace it with a clause based on the values of solidarity, tolerance and respect, and which recognised the role of the market and competition. Critics argued that the new clause was so general that it could be supported by a wide swath of progressive opinion. But that was precisely Blair’s point. As he explained, ‘socialism is not about class or trade unions, or capitalism versus socialism, it is about a belief in working together to get things done.’ The adoption of a unifying ‘one nation’ narrative was a turning point for New Labour.
It enabled Blair to assemble a wide-ranging coalition of voters, based on an appealing mix of compassion and aspiration. At its zenith in 1997 and 2001, it was an unbeatable alliance of Labour’s northern and Celtic heartlands with the upwardly mobile voters of the Midlands and south; it was also a combination of unskilled, skilled, white-collar and professional employees – very much one nation on the march. However, by 2005, New Labour was already losing seats in the south and in 2010 it was defeated because (the present leadership please note) it could not hold on to enough of its suburban marginals in the south and the Midlands.
For much of its life, New Labour’s record was economically and socially creditable. At least until the end of the second term, Brown was an excellent chancellor of the Exchequer, taking a number of creative initiatives, including transferring control over interest rates from the Treasury to the Bank of England and introducing the minimum wage and the working families tax credit to help the working poor. Under his management, national output grew by a third between 1997 and 2007, while inflation was kept under firm control.
It is wrong to try and pin the whole blame for the subsequent credit crunch on Brown. The financial crash was a world phenomenon which began in the United States. But Brown can certainly be criticised for basing his spending plans for the mid-2000s on overambitious forecasts and for regulating the City too lightly (though at the time the Conservative opposition called for further deregulation). However, we should not forget that Brown as prime minister, with Alistair Darling as his chancellor, saved the country from a banking collapse and led the international fight against global recession.
A decade of sustained growth made possible substantial increases in spending on health and education as well as in other public services which, under the Tories, had been starved of resources. In the NHS there were 44,000 more doctors and 89,000 more nurses than in 1997, as well as 100 new hospitals; in schools, there were 4,200 more teachers and nearly 4,000 schools were built, rebuilt or refurbished. Through the Sure Start programme for under-threes, 3,380 children’s centres were set up. Investment was accompanied by impressive improvements in outputs. Waiting times were the lowest since the NHS began. An average 18-month wait for hospital treatment in 1997 was reduced to a maximum wait of 18 weeks from referral to appointment. Deaths from cancer, strokes and heart attacks fell substantially.
Educational standards rose: 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reached the expected standard in English and 79 per cent in maths, compared with figures in 1997 of 63 per cent for English and 62 per cent for maths. As promised in 1997, free nursery places for all three- and four-year-olds were introduced, while at the other end of the educational ladder more young people attended university than ever before, including an increase in the number of students from poorer homes. Significantly, although polls showed that voters believed that crime had risen, overall crime was in fact down by 36 per cent – domestic burglary down by 54 per cent and violent crime down by 41 per cent.
Labour ministers made much of their commitment to a fairer society. They pointed out that, during the lifetime of New Labour governments, 500,000 children and 900,000 pensioners were lifted above the poverty line. A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2010 showed that as a result of tax and benefit changes the poorest 10 per cent of households were better off in terms of income by 12.8 per cent, while the richest 10 per cent were worse off by 8.7 per cent. However, inequality in wealth, reinforced by powerful economic forces, continued to grow. Polly Toynbee and David Walker, often harsh critics of New Labour, concluded that, ‘At best, Labour stopped inequality in the UK getting worse.’
New Labour was attacked for its civil liberties record, above all for its failed attempts to increase the number of days allowed for the detention of suspects without trial. But on the other side of the balance sheet, one has to take into account the Freedom of Information Act, the Human Rights Act, and civil partnerships for same-sex partners. The Blair government also devolved power to Scotland and Wales, while, thanks in part to Blair’s persistence, peace was brought to Northern Ireland.
New Labour certainly made its mistakes, among which the Iraq war was the most glaring. Both Blair and Brown tended to overestimate British power to intervene in the world, and to underestimate the potential for the United Kingdom to play a constructive role as a member of the European Union. Events have clearly moved on, but it would be unwise to write off the very considerable achievements of New Labour and to ignore its governing principles – the need to win and regain power, the need to adapt policies to changing circumstances, and the need to build a wide-ranging coalition of support, based on a mix of aspiration and compassion and comprising the south as well as the north and bringing together all social groups. In other words, a genuine one nation.
Giles Radice is a member of the House of Lords
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.