Time to put the last Labour government to bed
Kitty Ussher, Jacqui Smith, Anne Begg, Stephen Twigg and Mike Gapes assess how Labour did
The last Labour government was the Labour party’s greatest electoral success. It transformed our public realm and brought into being a Britain more relaxed with itself. It had a record of improvement and innovation in the public services that no other Labour government can match and rescued and reinvigorated the NHS Aneurin Bevan founded. It built upon the foundations the first Wilson government laid of liberal reforms to gender, race, disability and LGBT legislation that came on leaps and bounds in the late 1990s and early noughties. Under Labour, Britain took a leading role in Europe, the climate change debate, on aid and on the millennium development goals, and established the ‘Chicago doctrine’ on liberal interventionism.
On the pages that follow we try to take stock of the record of the 1997-2010 government. Five pages will never do it justice and everyone will have their favourite policy that we have missed out. The simple fact is there were so many, especially those we take for granted.
But for Labour to move on it must move out of the shadow of the last Labour government. We must, therefore, put the last government – respectfully and resolutely – to bed.
In doing so it should be remembered that just winning was the product of hours of blood, sweat and tears. Neil Kinnock and his team were the start of the turnaround. The long road, continued on by John Smith and the two future prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, seemed to have few quick wins and genuinely involve heavy-lifting. What is more, the act of governing demanded a daily battle with the small ‘c’ conservative bureaucracy, a relentless media, an unchanged and then resurgent Tory party, Liberal Democrats as opportunist as ever, and, all too often, battles too among cabinet colleagues.
Those who served as ministers, members of parliament, special advisers, parliamentary assistants, party staff and organisers, should be thanked. We only see the compromises that they win after internal clashes with a reluctant civil service and entrenched vested interests. Like a swan gliding on a lake, we rarely see the hard work that goes into making such movement. Someone once said to me: every government minister from Blair down is more leftwing than the Labour government, because what you see is the best they could win, not where they started out. This should make us more determined to return to government, not recoil from it. We will be lucky to stand on the shoulders of these giants.
Blair, in his last speech as prime minister, put it in the most simple terms: ‘We won not because we surrendered our values but because we finally had the courage to be true to them.’
Bedtime it might be, but only so the Labour movement – modernised and credible – can awaken as a party of government again.
Richard Angell is director of Progress
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