The Labour Party’s victory in the 1997 general election was an extraordinary moment, not so much once-in-a-generation as once-in-the-party’s-existence. A huge parliamentary majority materialized at a time when the economy was healthy and growing, with only the wispiest of clouds on the horizon. It was like a combination of 1945 and 1964, only better. Labour had never had such an opportunity before – and it’s very unlikely that it ever will again.
It wasn’t just the vote. It was the knowledge that change was in the air. The country was already moving on from the divided, conflicted years of Thatcherism, and it wanted a government that reflected that mood. Tony Blair was welcomed in with the hope that he would make a transformation.
So, how did he do?
To start with, there’s no point in complaining that he didn’t implement overtly socialist measures. He was never intending to do so, and he never said he would. Everyone knew he was on the Right of the party when he was stood to succeed John Smith, and Labour members could hardly complain that they’d been sold a pig in a poke. Unlike, say, Harold Wilson or Neil Kinnock, there was no narrative of betrayal here.
No, if we’re to judge Blair fairly, it should be on his own terms. And – because there’s no point in rehearsing again all the arguments about the wars – let’s concentrate on the home front.
Supporters of Blair will point to a list of domestic achievements: the minimum wage, Sure Start, investment in schools and hospitals, the raising of a million pensioners out of poverty, ditto for children, civil partnerships for same-sex couples, and so on.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown proved to be a mostly capable chancellor (if a disgraceful colleague) and there was continual economic growth right through the decade of Blair’s premiership. It seems a long time ago now, but for ten years the image of Labour as being inherently untrustworthy on the economy was put to one side.
Even so, one can approve of all these things while still thinking that it’s maybe a little underwhelming. It’s the record of a solid, unadventurous centrist government that wanted to share out the nation’s wealth a bit more fairly. A modest and quietly commendable government. A competent period of management.
But it was all so temporary. Fine while it lasted, but leaving little visible trace. Where was the bold structural change that would survive into the future?
The precedent was there. The government of Margaret Thatcher had totally transformed Britain in terms of taxation, trade unions and the state ownership of industry. Three decades on, those changes still don’t look like being challenged.
Where’s the New Labour equivalent? It’s only seven years since the Brown government limped out of office, and what now survives as the monument to Labour’s longest period in office?
The closest contender, perhaps, is the patchwork programme of constitutional change. Most of the hereditary peers were evicted from the House of Lords, though there was no further reform forthcoming. There was devolution for Scotland (which was supposed to halt the SNP in their tracks) and for Wales. The idea of city mayors was born. And there was a successful revival of the stalled peace process in Northern Ireland, which had begun under John Major. The latter is creaking a little, but may yet hold up as Blair’s finest moment.
Related to all this is the passing of the Freedom of Information Act (for which Blair later apologized) and the Human Rights Act, which might not survive Brexit.
But the constitutional changes that were made can’t conceal one of the two really big missed opportunities of the Blair promise.
The 1997 manifesto had promised a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons, and Blair duly appointed Roy Jenkins to chair the Independent Commission on the Voting System. In 1997 the Commission produced its report, calling for the introduction of the alternative vote top-up system for electing MPs.
And then… nothing. Nothing at all.
Of course, the public – if offered a vote on the proposal – might not have gone for it. As last year demonstrated, the result of a referendum is not in the gift of the government. But if Blair, at the peak of his popularity, had backed the reform and put it to the country, we would probably have adopted proportional representation. Politics would have been changed for ever.
In recent weeks, Blair himself has suggested tactical voting as a way of thwarting the current government’s commitment to Brexit. If he’d had the courage of his convictions back in 1998, that wouldn’t be necessary. The entire party system would have been reconfigured. Instead, he remains a member of a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, which is a frankly absurd situation. The restructuring of Westminster elections should have been a major part of Blair’s legacy.
The other great missed opportunity was the reform of the benefits system.
Frank Field was appointed minister for welfare reform in Blair’s first government, charged with – in the cliché of the time – ‘thinking the unthinkable’. He thought, and he came back in 1998 with a comprehensive programme that centred on a reinvention of National Insurance, an end to means-testing, an attack on benefit fraud, tighter controls on who should receive incapacity benefit, and the encouragement of private pensions – in short, a rolling back of dependence upon the state combined with a focus on collective insurance.
It was a huge project. The estimated cost of his proposals, around £8 billion, would, he argued, be recouped once the programme was fully implemented. But the figure scared the life out of both Blair and Brown and, like PR, the idea was shelved.
The need for reform remained, though, and ultimately it fell to Iain Duncan Smith to come up with an alternative system – not at a time of economic growth, but in the shadow of recession. On balance, it would have been safer to have entrusted it to Field in the boom years.
Blair knew that, in their different ways, both the electoral and benefit systems needed a major overhaul. That’s why he appointed Jenkins and Field in the first place. But he lacked the courage to take action. Labour had grown cautious over the eighteen years it had been shut out of power, and Blair in particular – however much he yearned to be a radical prime minister – seemed scared to venture far from managerialism.
He had a favourite epithet for those he admired. Rupert Murdoch ‘had balls’, Alastair Campbell and Michael Heseltine were both said to have ‘clanking great balls’, while Peter Mandelson had ‘balls of steel’. Blair was not so immodest as to claim the same for himself – though he made sure to place on record Murdoch’s praise for his ‘brass nerve’ – but he did like to talk about himself as a conviction politician in the hard-hitting mould of Margaret Thatcher.
He wasn’t. His balls were not made of steel, neither did they clank. For all his talk of making tough decisions, there was a desperate timidity to his time in office. That 1997 election was the best opportunity Labour ever had to change the country, and it was squandered. The same chance won’t come again.