By Mike Phipps
Tony Blair, we are now constantly being reminded, is Labour’s most successful prime minister. He won three elections and governed for ten years. For those who weren’t around, or who choose to believe that Blairism only unravelled as a result of the war in Iraq after 2003, it’s worth recalling what the early years of his government were actually like.
New Labour were elected by a landslide majority of 179 seats in 1997. Despite Blair’s modest manifesto, a Gallup poll nonetheless showed that 86% of voters believed that taxes would go up under Labour – yet still voted for them. 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. They were in for a shock. The government 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.
The Blair government’s 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. Its spending freeze 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. Instead the focus was on “welfare reform”, 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. Lone parents and people with disabilities were targeted – £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. The shortfall in higher education funding could have been met by rescinding of Gordon Brown’s 2% cut in corporation tax, at the time the lowest in western Europe. This of course was unthinkable.
Blair’s government was also highly authoritarian. It brought in 17 anti-crime bills and introduced anti-social behaviour orders, breaking the terms of which could lead to punishment in court despite no crime ever having been committed. 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 ruled 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. Meanwhile it spent at least five times as much on its military assault as it did on humanitarian relief for refugees. Tough legislation curtailed the rights of asylum seekers, with the added stigma of benefits being issued in the form of food vouchers. At the same time, the Blair government continued to sell armaments to a host of dictatorships and human rights abusers.
Among the Blair government’s many shortcomings were its failure 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.
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.
In the May 2000 local elections, Labour lost over 500 seats to the Tories. In the general election the following year, Labour was indeed re-elected but voter turnout slumped to 59% – the lowest since adult universal suffrage. In the Labour heartlands, widespread abstention was the response to being taken for granted.
In the second term came the massively unpopular war on Iraq, which saw the biggest demonstrations in Britain in many decades. Labour got re-elected in 2005 with fewer votes than in December 2019 – but in 2005 voters were not switching to the equally war-mongering Tories, but to smaller parties whose votes rarely translate into seats under our quaint electoral system.
New Labour were pretty complacent about this: Labour voters had nowhere else to go, surely? A decade later they found somewhere – the SNP wiped out Labour in its Scottish stronghold and UKIP began to make inroads elsewhere.
So when voices in the Party fulminate against Jeremy Corbyn over the loss of Labour’s heartlands, remind them that the seeds of neglect were sown in the years of our supposed most successful prime minister: Tony Blair. We are living with the consequences still.