The rehabilitation of Tony Blair is well underway. Ten years after leaving office, the former prime minister is increasingly on the airwaves to offer his wisdom on anything from the death of Martin McGuinness to the appointment of George Osborne as editor of the Evening Standard (“He’s a highly capable guy and it should make politics more interesting”).
In the popular imagination, Tony Blair will be forever associated with the illegal and immoral war in Iraq. It’s a great victory for the anti-war movement that we were able to make that conflict, still brutally ongoing, his enduring legacy. But Blair’s domestic impact should not be disregarded. Popular he may have been before 2003, but the erosion of trust with core voters and the damage to Labour’s brand, which we are still repairing, began when he entered office twenty years ago this month.
Labour’s 1997 landslide victory emphasised just how unpopular the 18 year old Tory government had become. But it also revealed voters to be considerably to the left of the New Labour government they were about to get. 72% of voters in May 1997 wanted an income tax increase to fund better education and public services. 74% wanted no further privatisations. 58% wanted wealth redistribution. Politics Professor Anthony King conceded: “The conventional wisdom of a whole political generation - that voters would not vote for tax-raising parties - has turned out to be wrong.”
But New Labour in office moved in a different direction. Its first act was to give responsibility for setting interest rates to the Bank of England, thus surrendering one of government’s most economic important levers to an unaccountable institution. Then it announced it was sticking to the previous Tory government’s spending targets for the next two years - despite running a £5.7 billion surplus in the public accounts. In real terms, this meant cuts in education, health, transport and local government, forcing councils to slash and privatise cervices.
Blair’s was the first ever Labour government not to raise levels of welfare benefit on taking office. “Welfare reform” became the new mantra, with Harriet Harman saying the previous Tory minister had let claimants “rip off the system” and Peter Mandelson speaking out against “throwing money at poverty”. The Social Exclusion Unit was instructed to save, rather than spend, money. The government’s first target was people with disabilities, cuts in whose benefits led to disabled activists chaining themselves to the railings of Downing Street and smearing themselves with red paint -’Blair’s blood’. £3.2 bn was cut from the welfare budget even before Blair’s welfare ‘reforms’ came into force.
Next, Blair’s government introduced university tuition fees, something the Tories would never have dared attempt. A Briefing editorial commented at the time: “The big lie behind the university fees gambit is that somehow the country can no longer afford to fund higher education. In fact ,conversion of some 10% of current military spending would cover the long term shortfall in university funding, as would the rescinding of Gordon Brown’s 2% cut in corporation tax” - at the time the lowest in western Europe.
As the Formula one donation fiasco, the first of many ‘cash for favours’ scandals, broke around New Labour, a December 1997 Briefing editorial observed: “The people Blair wants most desperately to please are those who have amassed great wealth and power. Politically, he believes that elections can only be won, and office retained, by their grace and favour. Ideologically, he is committed to neo-liberalism, as a consequence of which he identifies the ‘national interest’ with the interests of big business. That is why some manifesto promises - notably on the top rate of income tax - are more sacrosanct than others. That is why, prior to the election, Blair put far more effort into courting favour with Rupert Murdoch than winning the votes of millions of pensioners, trade union members, or single parents.”
Blair’s government was also highly authoritarian. Thankfully, its repeated proposals to axe most trials by jury were largely blocked by the House of Lords, but other measures which subverted the rule of law, got through. These included anti-social behaviour orders, breaking the terms of which could lead to punishment in court despite no crime ever having been committed. In the first five years, Blair’s government brought forth 17 anti-crime bills. By the second term, a bonfire of civil liberties was underway, the centrepiece of which, indefinite detention without trial, was abandoned only when it was deemed to violate the Human Rights Act.
Remember too that Iraq was by no means the first military action for Blair. His government was an enthusiastic participant in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, pushing the most hawkish line among NATO combatants. Factories, offices, residential areas, water and electricity supplies, bridges, roads, television stations, hospitals, schools, prisons, vegetable markets, museums, churches, refugee convoys and even the Chinese embassy were bombed - all in the name of ‘humanitarian intervention’. The government, however, spent at least five times as much on its military assault as it did on humanitarian relief for refugees. Meanwhile its draconian legislation curtailing the rights of asylum seekers at this time, particularly stigmatising them by issuing benefits in the form of food vouchers, gave the lie to its supposed humanitarian concerns.
Making a mockery of its self-proclaimed ‘ethical foreign policy’, the Blair government continued to sell armaments to a host of dictatorships and human rights abusers, none worse than the Indonesian regime that was carrying out a murderous genocide in East Timor. But there were other beneficiaries too. It was Jeremy Corbyn MP who wrote in the February 2000 Briefing: “In the same week that arms sales to the Indonesian military were resumed, the Prime Minister personally overruled the Foreign Secretary and gave the go-ahead for the sale of spare parts for Hawk fighter jets to Zimbabwe.”
Many of New Labour’s first term failings lay in what it didn’t do. It failed to make significant inroads into child poverty, one of its central goals. It failed to reconstruct Britain’s industrial base, so pummelled under Thatcher, despite a booming economy. This lack of vision would prove costly, entrenching divisions between a prosperous south, increasingly dependent on parasitic financial services, and a stagnant hinterland, deprived of long-term investment. This neglect fostered conditions where all parts of the UK were ill-prepared for the inevitable economic crash a decade later.
Housing was perhaps the biggest lost opportunity. It took New Labour over three years to bring out a consultation paper, during which time homelessness had doubled. The thrust of its proposals was merely the transfer of council housing stock to private bodies. As for building, fewer than a thousand units were constructed by local authorities in Blair’s first term. Contrast this with nearly a million council homes created under the 1964-70 Labour government and the over half a million units built under the 1974-9 Labour government at a time of IMF cuts and grave economic crisis.
Labour reaped the rewards of their embrace of the free market and timid approach to social reform at the May 2000 local elections, where the Party lost over 500 seats to the Tories. A Briefing editorial commented: “The widespread perception that the Government has failed to deliver is well-founded - schools are being privatised, the wait for hospital treatment is too long, the last vestiges of a publicly-owned transport are being privatised, and the state pension increases by an insulting 75p a week.”
Yet in London, Ken Livingstone, publicly denounced by Tony Blair for making Labour unelectable for a generation, bucked the trend, winning a famous victory as mayor against the official New Labour candidate and against its policy of tube privatisation. As in 1997, votes were still thirsting for something more than Blairism could offer.
A year later, New Labour were re-elected by a thumping majority. Party chiefs were utterly complacent about the fall in voter turnout to 59% - the lowest since adult universal suffrage. After all, it was mainly core Labour voters who were abstaining and they wouldn’t go anywhere else, would they? But over the next years, fed up with being taken for granted, they did turn elsewhere, particularly to nationalists of various stripes - and in 2015, Labour were reduced in Scotland to just one parliamentary seat. The seeds of this collapse were sewn in those early Blair years.