Heir to Blair?

Whilst many of us want to concentrate on the future and the rescue of our economy, the next few months will also see some reappraisal of the Labour years. For the first time we will be able to debate them without the choking blanket of spin coming from Downing Street.

That is why I had no objections to debating with Mr Campbell on Question Time. To those who say he was never elected so he should not represent the Labour cause, I say he was a crucial influence on that Labour government. We need to debate amongst other things whether it was healthy that a Spin Doctor had as much power as he had. He appeared to have more power than any Cabinet Minister save the Chancellor. He was there when the crucial decisions were made and explained on the Iraq war which came to define Mr Blair’s premiership. He created a network of Press Officers throughout Whitehall who changed the way government operated and spoke. He knew the Labour lines better than most, and crafted a good few of them. We are rarely if ever going to be able to debate it with Mr Blair, and he himself is also now no longer elected.

I think Conservatives now need to consider carefully how we should describe the Blair years. After all, Mr Blair beat the Conservative party on three seperate occasions, albeit on a sharply falling vote each time. I always think it best to ask first what is the truth, and then to find the words that best capture that.

Mr Blair’s premiership fell into three phases. In the first he enjoyed amazing popularity and support. The country had high hopes. He and his Chancellor kept to Conservative spending plans, repaid public debt and presided over a continuing strong economy. Unfortunately they wrecked the pension funds through early decisions, and failed in that crucial first Parliament to reform welfare as promised. These choices proved expensive for the country subsequently.

In the second phase they started to spend more, in some cases helpfully, but in many cases in a wasteful way. They were fixated by the volume of spending instead of by what needed doing and the results of spending. The Prime Minister became more and more preoccupied by foreign wars, perhaps partly because his Chancellor made it so difficult for him to involve himself in domestic spending and policy. His naive pro EU stance started the unpopular immigration policy and left him legislating so many unhelpful or irrelevant EU Directives into UK law.

In the third phase Mr Blair was under constant attack from his neighbour who wanted his job, and was very unpopular with the public who had grown tired of the wars and the spin.

So how should we sum it up? It was all a great let down for the country. High hopes were shattered. He failed to achieve the crucial reform of welfare we needed. He came late to the idea of health and education reform, having started out by ditching Conservative reforms that might have begun to do so good if left and developed. He did understand the need to reform public services but failed to deliver. He did teach Labour that they had to be more sympathetic to success and enterprise. He allowed himself to become too committed to Bush’s war.

It was his successor who was unelected, who made the prime cause of Labour in government clinging to power. It was he who drove debt, waste and borrowing to new and dangerous highs, and who bungled his handling of the banking crisis so badly. It was after all Mr Brown who set up the system of banking regulation which ultimately brought him down, damaging the Uk economy massively at the same time. Mr Brown’s socialist authoritarianism was as damaging as Mr Blair’s lack of delivery was disappointing.


  1. oldrightie
    May 30, 2010

    An excellent post, as ever. My take on The Blair years is a little different. I believe that Labours' 13 years were all about keeping power first and The Nation's welfare was always way down their list of priorities. They failed to govern even themselves. As for Campbell, he was the engineer to Blair and Brown's bridge telegraph aboard their Titanic voyage!

  2. Lord Jay Thunder
    May 30, 2010

    Great blog post John.

    Very simply, it is essential that the global financial crisis does not become a cover for the budgetary mess created by Brown and rubber stamped by Blair.

    We have to make sure that as every mess is unpicked and put right we say to the country, this is tougher and more difficult because the labour government chose to do x and y.

  3. Matt
    May 30, 2010

    I would sum the Blair years up as “Badly thought through opportunistic policy” seemingly made on the hoof, for short term gain, without considering the long term consequences.

    Such as

    ACT on pension funds, seemed easy pickings, as Mr Blair said at the time “most of these pension funds are in surplus” so he seemed to think that no harm was done, free money. Then the stock market floundered, actuaries suddenly seemed to realise that people were living longer and adjusted their sums, hey presto – destruction of the final salary scheme.

    Iraq war, his policy seemed to be “stick with the big kid on the block,” give undying support and, in so doing, rather than have a greater influence on the world stage, Mr Blair ended up being used by GW for little or no influence. With no thought for the aftermath.

    House of Lords, abolish most hereditary peers then, sort of, lose interest and walk away, with mumblings about more reform to come.

    Energy needs, pontificate for 13 years and go nowhere, but erect a few more wind farms, so ensuring, that with the absence of anything other new source coming on stream, we have a long term energy problem.

    Buying votes by creating hundreds of thousands of government jobs, how did we manage before this?

    Buying votes by keeping millions on welfare.

    Scottish and Welsh devolution, more talking shops but leaving the west Lothian question unsolved. Then attempting to divide England into statelets, thankfully failed.

    Pouring money into largely unreformed public services.

    Leaving, it seems, his chancellor with supreme control over domestic policy, his biggest domestic failure may have been his decision to hang on to Mr Brown after the first term.

    Yes the Blair years were characterised by headline grabbing policies, the consequences of which will be around for a long time. Then like all Labour governments they run out of cash.

    It’s worth reflecting that the strength of the 1997 win and then the mountain to climb afterwards for the Conservatives was exacerbated by the public’s view of Mr Major’s leadership.

    Rising so quickly to the top, Mr Major gave the impression, to a large section of the public that he was out of his depth in the job. I don’t know if it was true, but I think few people would argue that he gave that impression to a lot of people, even though the economy was in an enviable state.

    The strangulated voice didn’t help either. Kelvin McKenzie seldom does an interview without mimicking this.

  4. Robert George
    May 30, 2010

    I think that analysis of Labour can be far too refined. The simple message that the Tory party should hammer the electorate with is that Labour can never ever be trusted with money.

    Every single Labour government since Ramsay McDonald has brought the country to economic ruin… every single one.

    They just find new ways to do it.

    This simple message was over complicated in the recent election.

  5. Oik
    May 30, 2010

    I would say that the entire duration of Labour's tenure of government was defined by its central principle and motive- to "keep the Tories out". That objective is much closer to Labour hearts than the retention of power to achieve their own policies, as evidenced by the fact that Labour seemed little interested in passing legislation of much significance, and that the policy areas that were pursued keenly (wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq; repressive counter-terrorism measures; increases in public spending without significant associated reform) were tied heavily to the development of Tony Blair's image at home and abroad, and intended to make the Conservative's job in opposition more awkward.

    Alistair Campbell's status as the most powerful figure is Labour's high command, his ongoing role as sycophant-in-chief to Blair, and his place in Labour's post-election talks with the Liberal Democrats, are all symptomatic of a political "project" that was founded on a bedrock of mean spirited tribalism. For this reason, it makes little difference whether the Labour party is led by Blair, Brown, or Harman; or whether it is in government or opposition. It exists purely, simply, and only to attempt to separate the Conservatives from the reigns of power.

  6. Tim
    May 30, 2010

    He failed to achieve the crucial reform of welfare we needed.

    Mr Redwood, a lot of politicians trot out the words 'welfare reform' without really telling us exactly what they intend to do to put things right.

    I'm educated to degree level but have been on Incapacity Benefit for over 10 years.

    The problem is that employers, especially private sector employers, simply do not want to take disabled people on (where they could do some work.) A lot of the time I'm not sure that I blame them.

    Do you agree that it is unfair to punish disabled people who cannot get work through no fault of their own? What ideas for welfare reform do you have that would address this problem?

  7. Andrew Johnson
    May 30, 2010

    For the last 13 years, I have endured the machinations of the worst government I have lived under.
    Frankly it doesn't matter a jot what Labour apparatchiks did, said, or manipulated, that's in the past. What does matter is that despite government incompetence on a Neronian scale the Conservative party failed to win an outright majority.

    I am reserving my judgement on the Coalition till after the budget and the details of how they propose to rescue the country from the financial tsunami that's coming our way.
    I do expect a Prime Ministerial broadcast from Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg plainly setting out the facts. This has to be supplemented by a well thought out ongoing campaign to ensure that a majority of the population understands just how serious a financial crisis we are facing because Labour embarked on a spending spree unprecedented in modern Britain. People need to be told it was all done with borrowed money that now has to be repaid. The majority of people still think we can carry on as we have done for the past 13 years. That's why the Conservatives didn't get a majority.
    Why do we think BA cabin crew are striking and BT employees and others may also be ready to strike?

    There is a massive job to be done to re-educate people about where genuine profits and wealth come from and why business, banks, commerce and industry of all kinds need to be encouraged.

    If this isn't done, the coalition will fall because the public won't see the need for the massive changes that are needed to give our country a secure future.

    Is Mr. Cameron a Conservative or a social centrist? Time will tell. In the meantime, I continue to lament that no room can be found in the government for Mr Redwood and Mr. Davies, especially in view of the unfortunate resignation of the seemingly very able Mr Laws.

    1. Oik
      May 30, 2010

      On your last point: Mr Redwood may well find a much deserved post at the treasury, if his Lib Dem rivals continue to vacate their positions at the current rate.

  8. James Matthews
    May 30, 2010

    You omit the most destructive part of Blair's legacy. A half-baked devolution settlement which is leading slowly but inexorably to the end of the United Kingdom. That is what, in the long term, he will be remembered for.

    1. Michele
      June 4, 2010

      Absolutely right. This is the silent one, ticking away, and it looks like it's too late to do anything about it.

      Shame, shame, shame.

  9. ed
    May 30, 2010

    I agree with the general approach of the analysis. I think it's critical for Conservatives to understand the optimism generated by Blair's youthful apparent centrism. Where I think more attention needs to be focussed is on the Blair-ism, the so-called "third way". The third way, in reality, was a slogan borrowed from fascism, and so Blairism could be seen as close to Progressivism. Hence Government dominates in a relationship between the state and big business- best exemplified early in the Blair years when the ban on tobacco advertising was lifted for the specific case of Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone.

    What I like so far about the Conservative approach now is that it hints at avoiding the corporatism which tended to tar previous Conservative governments. The Liberals might even help with that…

    I think it's important to understand that the Blair years were flawed from the beginning by the emergency adoption of progressivism as a substitute for socialism. Progressivism believes in the regulatory supremacy of Government and the use of this as a bargaining chip for economic power. Progressivism is the most effective left of centre philosophy but it tends to build in fundamental flaws to the economic system. A good example (from the US) is the Democrats favouritism of Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac. In Britain, the examples were rather more crass. Gordon offered many gimmicks during his economic management of the UK, but his raid on pensions was the substantive action which underlay the weakness of the financial system in subsequent years.

  10. Roger Rushton
    May 30, 2010

    Surely the biggest mistake made by both Blair and Brown is the same one that David Cameron appears to be making – according to the Yorkshire speech. He has an opportunity at this stage, while everything is someone else's fault, to tell the whole truth about Britain's situation in the global economy. He is beginning to throw that chance away.

    Is it really a political impossibility to spell it out clearly? You John, would seem to be one of the few politicians who see exactly what our situation is – or is it widely understood, but no-one can see the strategic advantage of explaining it loudly and often? If it was widely understood, if a new Government took the time to educate themselves and the electorate, then every small advance could be hailed as a triumph over real adversity – rather than mourned as a disappointingly small step after too much optimistic bravado.

    For anyone reading this who has no idea what I am talking about, I had better explain it. No-one else is.

    The unfortunate reality is that Britain has a cost high economy which, in general, means that we cannot compete with those economies which have lower costs. There are a few sectors where we can win – finance, new technologies – but in the main we have to accept that we are going to be worse off until the major developing economies graduate to higher costs. Any new Government that seeks to paint a brighter picture than that, is bound to disappoint the British people. We can't borrow our way out of that situation, nor spend our way out of it. We cannot expect to achieve a better standard of living for most of us in the coming years = so why even begin to pretend that we can? This is where Blair and Brown fell down.

    Why am I saying this? Why isn't Cameron saying it for me? Or you, John?

  11. Mike Fowle
    May 31, 2010

    Very fair assessment. I think that spin in all its forms is perhaps the most pernicious legacy of the last government. The civil service was traduced and the media colluded in covering up the faults and sheer unpleasantness of the government. As a former (very minor) civil servant I could weep at how standards have fallen. I think the public anger at MPs' expenses was in some ways an outlet for this frustration, not really at the most important target. I fear that – amazingly – reinstatement of Mr Brown's reputation will soon begin, not least at the BBC (cf how the BBC treated his desperate and outrageous attempt to remain in office after the election).

  12. Cary
    June 1, 2010

    Blair's three election victories spooked the Tories so much they thought (and many still think) there was something magical about the man. In fact the explanation was much more prosaic – the economy. 1997 was a judgment on Black Wednesday (after which John Major's government fell behind in the opinion polls and never recovered); 2001 and 2005 were won on the back of economic growth (though latterly it's become clear some of that later growth was due to an unsustainable boom). And Labour's loss in 2010 is down principally to economic failure. So in appraising Blair, Tories need to stop seeing him as some sort of electoral genius; he was lucky and he rode his luck to his benefit.

    Was it not Roy Jenkins who described Blair as a third rate intellect and first rate politician? He sold an image that lacked substance, but like the best snake oil salesman he was able to get out of town before the truth caught up with him.

  13. David Lilley
    June 2, 2010

    I take an entirely different view of Gordon Brown’s legacy.

    We should judge a Chancellor entirely on his stewardship in that role and we should judge a PM entirely by his stewardship in that role. His colour, origins, religion, temperament etc do not enter into it. It is the same with a footballer or any professional.

    As Chancellor, you should ask the question “What would you think of the treasurer of your football club if he bankrupted the club?”

    As PM, you should ask the question “What would you think of the Chairman of your football club if he took all the executive decisions and made all the public announcements alone despite the supposed delegation of responsibilities to executive directors?”

    In the short first term his chancellor ship was indistinguishable from his predecessor Ken Clark and the media would count the number of times he used the word “prudence”. The word stayed with the media although he has barely used it in the last decade. Given a second term, he immediately jumped employee NIC by 10% (from 10% to 11%) and increased the “jobs tax”, employer NIC by 10%. Dozens of new stealth taxes were introduced targeted at business and middle-income earners. Many so stealthy that the media was unable to recognise that they were stealth taxes. For example, NMW is redistribution of income with near universal support except, of course, by the 1% who have to find the money from their own pocket to pay this tax. Another example is “The Social Fund” provided by the energy companies, currently £900,000,000 pa that goes un-noticed because it comes from the energy companies so who cares. Well you should notice and you should care because the energy companies must pass it on to their customers and that means that you pay a premium on your energy bills so that others who don’t pay their bills cannot have their supply cut off. Student loans and tuition fees are a stealth tax on middle-income earners.

    Gordon’s tax take rose from 43% to some 50% (given that state spending is 51% of all UK spending). It is also unrecognised that in his 10 years as Chancellor he spared Scottish distillers a rise in spirit duty.

    Yet despite all the tax rises his spending demanded £30,000,000,000 to £40b of borrowing every year since 2001 and £216,000,000,000 of off-balance sheet debt in the form of PFI.

    Many have mentioned the new schools and hospitals but every single one was on the never-never (PFI). The children themselves will have to pay for them in increased council taxes and they were not cheap, 17% pa over 20 years.

    The boom years, the nice decade, the stability decade was a mirage. It was the debt decade. We didn’t have boom years; we simply borrowed money from tomorrow and spend it today. To put it in simple terms we were earning next to nothing, we took a week’s sub, spent money as if we were rich and never thought about the following week when we wouldn’t even have a wage.

    I have often pointed out that if we take personal debt alone, peaking at £1.5t, cut it ten ways and spread its growth equally over the nice decade, at 10% pa, it reduces GDP from plus 3% pa to minus 7% pa. We have failed to make our way in the global economy and yet we have pretended otherwise on the back of borrowing. Borrowing to the extent of a 60-year state mortgage that will, even with the new management, grow to an 80-year state mortgage.

    I keep trying to put things in terms that we can all understand like taking a sub. Please ask yourself if it is fair to ask others, who will not be born for 50 years, to pick up your tab. Please ask yourself if it was responsible to ask the workers, the middle-income earners, to pay tax to fund £43,000,000,000 pa of debt servicing. Please ask yourself if it is in the interest of the NHS to sit back and let the debt servicing costs grow to over £100b pa in four years time, equal to the cost of the NHS. Please ask yourself if it worth taking the risk of our debt servicing costs growing to four times the cost of the NHS if we sleep-walk into a Greek, Romanian, Latvian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Spanish or Italian tragedy and we cannot continue to borrow without paying rates proportional to default risk.

    What was Gordon thinking about? Were his history modules confined to Robin Hood? Please vet future Chancellors for their numeracy skills and preferably choose Chancellors with a PPE.

    If you thought he was part of a team you were wrong. It was a one-man band. Even Tony Blair chose to be out of the country and couldn’t explain tax credits or the New Deal. Your Labour MP was either chosen because she was female or because he/she claimed not to be an educated man/woman but could claim working class street credentials. Would you go to a doctor who only claimed street credentials? Your Labour MP couldn’t stomach the Fiscal Responsibility Bill or the second reading of the Finance Bill and didn’t bother to attend.

    I haven’t mentioned pensions tax credits, gold bullion sales, LATS, a threefold rise in single parents, guest workers doing our jobs, 90% of the jobs created going to guest workers, 1m extra civil servants with un-costed pensions and 10 days sickies per year, GPs on more than investment bankers and hundreds of other legacies of Gordon Brown. I have tried instead to mention the things that have not been covered.

    1. Michele
      June 4, 2010

      Very, very well said.

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